If you think opera is snobbish, an Omaha event this week might provide a different look.
“It's a total hoot,” said Vernie Jones, a past president of the Opera Omaha Guild. “And it certainly helps dispel the image of opera and operagoers being stuffy and a little snooty.”
Yes, the venerable opera's guild is putting on a drag show.
Called Spirits of the Opera, the event Saturday is the guild's fundraiser for Opera Omaha. It will be at the Max, 15th and Jackson Streets downtown, which bills itself as “the best gay dance club in America.”
Men dressing as women onstage goes back at least to the era of Shakespeare. Milton Berle, “Mr. Television” in the 1950s, often dressed in drag as a gag.
Gay clubs have sponsored drag shows for years. In 2004, the New Yorker magazine reported on the Miss Max contest in Omaha, then in its 20th year.
With greater acceptance of gays in America today, it might be natural that a drag show is something of a non-issue.
“It's just fun,” said Bruce Bufkin, who will emcee the event, “and a really interesting combination of subculture and mainstream culture.”
This is the third year for the Opera Omaha Guild's show.
“The first year shocked and awed,” said Bruce, known by his nickname, “Buffy.” “A lot of female impersonators do shows but don't have receiving lines afterward like we had that night, with people telling them how much they enjoyed it.”
Last summer in Philadelphia, the Opera Omaha Guild received an award from Opera Volunteers International for innovating the event.
Lisa Hagstrom of Omaha, a guild volunteer who came up with the idea, accepted the award on behalf of the guild and gave a presentation. It was so popular she had to give it twice.
Competitors are each asked to lip-sync a famous aria, giving their own interpretations. They also lip-sync a “signature number,” a song of their own choosing.
Matt Finken of Omaha is the reigning “Miss Spirits” and will attempt to defend his title Saturday. Onstage, he goes by the name “Macy Riley.”
A gymnast as a teenager in nearby Missouri Valley, Iowa, and now a 41-year-old kitchen designer, he has held various titles, including “Miss Gay Omaha,” “Miss Merry Christmas” and “Empress of the Imperial Court of Nebraska.”
He has traveled the country for competitions, and some people are surprised when he says he is from Omaha.
“Everybody thinks Omaha is a little country cow town,” Matt said. “They don't know we have opera, symphony, great museums, a zoo and a lot more.”
Dressing up is expensive.
“It costs a lot to buy a dress, a pair of heels, makeup, wigs, nails and eyelashes,” he said. “I'm lucky that I can afford to buy those things.”
He's glad to do so for charity fundraisers and says he wants to make audiences comfortable.
“A lot of straight people come to the shows and find it very interesting,” Matt said. “I like to have fun with the audience.”
Most gay people are not cross-dressers, and the event is not pushing a gay lifestyle. It's intended as a fun evening with glitz and glamour, with makeup and costumes — like opera itself.
Though homosexuality remains controversial, an event such as this may be another example of the softening of opinion on gayness in America.
A Gallup Poll in November, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed that support for same-sex marriage had doubled since 1996 — from 27 percent approval to 53 percent.
“A lot of times we separate ourselves,” said Bruce, who is gay. “I've always been of the firm belief that if we did more things with the community at large, there would be more acceptance.”
Matt said it's heartening for gay people to see more straight folks, including some conservative politicians who learned that loved ones were gay, changing the way they look at homosexuals.
“Everybody knows a gay person now,” he said. “And people are more comfortable coming out.”
Saturday's show is from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tickets — $45, or $60 for reserved seating — can be purchased by calling 402-346-4398.
Because of donations and sponsorships, 100 percent of ticket sales, as well as money raised in an auction and a raffle, will go to help Opera Omaha.
Most gays are not flamboyant, but Saturday's show will be — pick your adjective — resplendent, flashy, ostentatious or dazzling. And mostly, organizers hope, just fun.
“Opera is such a beautiful art form,” said Vernie Jones, a longtime volunteer for a variety of causes. “But lots of people are standoffish about it because it does have an image of snobbism. This event really helps shine a new light.”
Not everyone admires cross-dressing. But attendees who know what to expect aren't likely to find this fast-paced show a drag.
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