Update June 11: Seattle Opera has rescheduled “The Drunken Tenor: Quarantini Edition” to 7 p.m. Friday, June 26.
Update, 1:25 p.m. June 9: Seattle Opera has posted the following announcement on its website: “Out of respect to the anti-racism movements taking place in our city and country which need space and our attention now, Seattle Opera and the artists involved in the June 12th The Drunken Tenor recital have all agreed it is best to move this event to another day. A new date will be announced soon.”
On stage, the tenor Robert McPherson leads a double life. In non-pandemic times, he has a busy international career in opera, with recent engagements including the Metropolitan Opera, Israeli Opera and the English National Opera. But he has another persona, one that’s been emerging more often during these stay-at-home days: The Drunken Tenor, who wears a tuxedo T-shirt and zestfully imbibes while performing — the better to find the courage to hit those high notes.
In short, the Drunken Tenor act, which currently also includes soprano Jennifer Bromagen and pianist David McDade, is a cheerful collision of opera and sketch comedy, complete with a sprinkling of vocal impressions (imagine Elvis doing opera). Seattle Opera will present a special Quarantini Edition of the act online, free of charge, at 7 p.m. June 12 (and available for two weeks afterward) at seattleopera.org, as well as on the company’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
The Drunken Tenor debuted about eight years ago, when McPherson was performing in a benefit concert for breast cancer and singing the aria “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” — a work known for being fiendishly difficult for tenors, with multiple high C’s.
“I decided to do something different,” remembered McPherson, on the phone from his Burien home — what if the singer was afraid of the high C? In performance he pulled out first a flask, then a full martini, and then “a froufrou drink with a straw and umbrella hanging off it.” The audience got a kick out of it, so McPherson put the performance on YouTube. Response was favorable, and a tuneful, silly alter ego was born.
Over a few years, the bit evolved to its current format: two acts, with soprano and pianist. McPherson is especially proud that The Drunken Tenor won Best of Fringe at the 2017 Seattle Fringe Festival. “I think I was the only classical vocalist anywhere in the program that season,” he said. “The show was always meant to be accessible to anyone, it wasn’t a show that I created just for the opera lover. I come from a blue-collar family, and if my brother can’t curl up with a beer and watch and enjoy it, then I’m not doing my job.”
The Quarantini Edition, McPherson said, will feature some of his familiar bits — including, as always, one aria done “without shtick, because I want people to hear the real thing.” He, Bromagen and McDade will each be performing remotely, via Zoom, and he’s letting that format guide the material. Accustomed to performing for a live audience, he’s now getting used to a quieter reception.
“What I’ve found is the material that I performed many times in front of an audience, I kind of have the echoes of those performances in my ear and in my body, so I play them, without waiting for laughter, but giving it breath,” he said. “I’ve been watching the late-night comedians, how they’re reacting to not having an audience. The ones who really do it well, they don’t pause for audience response that’s not going to be there, they just give it a little bit of space, a little bit of air.”
Like other performing artists, McPherson has watched in dismay this spring as opportunities for live performance have vanished due to the pandemic. But he responded by putting The Drunken Tenor to work, for a while creating daily short videos on his website.
“I did them through the end of May, and now I kind of retired it a little bit, to do more long-play parody videos,” he said. “Coming up with a song every day became a challenge.” But he was happy to be able to do something.
“Fairly early on in the shelter-in-place order, I did a silly video of me in an inflatable dinosaur costume singing in my backyard,” McPherson said. He was feeling, at that time, a little discouraged — “what I was providing for the world seemed so inconsequential at the moment.”
And then a friend who worked in health care wrote on his Facebook wall. “She said, ‘After a hard day of dealing with patients who are freaking out about their health, dealing with the stress of my colleagues and trying to maintain my own mental well-being, I came home that night, sat on the couch, and I saw an old friend from high school singing in his backyard in a dinosaur outfit, and it was the first time I smiled that day.’
“I started to realize that, if I can maybe brighten my little corner of the world with comedy and hopefully make people smile, then that has power. That’s something I can do.”