Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Gay sex stories set to drag opera in Cocktales with Maria

Sexual encounters set to music highlights meaningful moments, says composer

“We had sex on the hardwood floor, sweating like pigs because it was July in Berlin and he had no air conditioning,” Maria Toilette (Joel Klein) sings in Cocktales with Maria. Credit: Low-Rent Gutter Opera

If you were rehearsing a semi-operatic drag cabaret with texts lifted verbatim from salacious man-on-man sex stories, your first choice of venue may not be the small northern town of Smithers, BC. But that’s exactly where Low-Rent Gutter Opera headed to test its new show.

“We performed as a fundraiser for the arts council in a converted church, which was so beautifully appropriate-slash-inappropriate it was wonderful,” says the opera’s co-founder Joel Klein, who is also the baritone behind the show’s candid chanteuse in Cocktales with Maria.

“Bathhouse above the Zoologicsher Garten train station. I met a Russian guy; in this 30s, thin, bald, covered with light brown fur,” Maria sings in one of the cabaret’s songs, “Berlin Bathhouse, 1997.”

The Bulkley Valley Concert Association offered Gutter Opera a week-long artists’ residency to continue developing the piece after seeing Cocktales as a work-in-progress at a Vancouver Art Gallery Fuse event in April 2014.

“We lived on a farm just outside of town and rehearsed on the grand piano in the high school music teacher’s living room,” Klein recalls.

“He spoke no English, I spoke no German . . . so we communicated in broken French. He kept telling me he was a musician,” Maria sings.

They had a capacity crowd of just over 100 for their single performance. That might sound smallish, but when you consider the town is home to 5,400 people, it becomes a respectable chunk of the population. A comparable crowd in Vancouver would number just over 11,000 and would fill the Queen Elizabeth Theatre nearly four times over.

“I figured he played the guitar, maybe sang in an amateur choir. We got to his apartment — a tiny single room bachelor suite — where a grand piano took up 80 percent of the floor space, with the score of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata spilling over the edges.”

The Cocktales project began in 2011 when the Vancouver Queer Film Festival commissioned a new work from Klein, who turned to singer/composer Isaiah Bell to collaborate. The piece was to be paired with a screening of author and filmmaker Michael V Smith’s short film Invitation.

In Invitation, Smith elegantly shares his autobiographical story of overcoming body shame and coming to terms with himself as a gay man. Klein and Bell take what some might perceive as dirty, even shameful, stories and set them to music.

”I hope putting it to music highlights what’s meaningful,” Bell says, “and indicates that just because it happens at a bathhouse or was a one-night stand, it wasn’t less meaningful or less true.”

“It turns out he was a rehearsal pianist for the Komische Oper. We had sex on the hardwood floor, sweating like pigs because it was July in Berlin and he had no air conditioning.”

In face-to-face interviews, Klein recorded more than 10 hours of sexual adventures that he and Bell then reduced to a 40-minute song cycle composed for Klein’s alter ego, Maria Toilette.

In the course of the evening, Toilette offers us the best, the worst, and the most memorable of those adventures.

“After we came, we continued to lie on the floor and he gently blew across my closed eyes to cool me down. I have never forgotten it.”

Cocktales is being presented at the rEvolver Theatre Festival with twp performances at The Cultch and — if you feel like something a little more intimate and perhaps participatory — one at Club 8×6, followed by a play party.

If you work hard, you might end up with something to sing about should Gutter Opera ever decide to do a sequel.