Classical grand opera is no laughing matter. With its labyrinthine story lines, massive productions and pampered performers, it's no wonder that opera scares away many a potential audience member. But B.J. Ward sees through the traditions and focuses on the fun and absurdity hiding just beneath the surface. Since 1990, she has been demystifying the conventions of the opera world and skewering its excesses in "Stand-Up Opera."
The show, which hits the Scottsdale Center for the Arts Saturday night (which, appropriately enough, just happens to be April Fools' Day), is a one-woman exploration of all things operatic. While Ward spends a lot of time being totally irreverent about the trappings of the genre, she is absolutely serious about the music. Her humor is on display throughout her intros and anecdotes, but it's the beauty of the arias that is on display when she starts to sing.
By phone from her home in Los Angeles, I asked her why she began to take a lighthearted look at what many see as an elitist or intimidating world.
"I always thought that it was a world I wasn't much interested in. I loved musicals, not opera. And yet musicals are what they are, except that the music is better and it's in a foreign language. I actually started studying it just for fun and as a vocal challenge. I'd been doing a lot of assignment singing for commercial jingles and things. When I started reading about them [operas], it was all so interesting. The stories were all so funny and passionate. It didn't take much to start fooling with the stories and telling my friends about them. I'd be saying, 'This is kind of weird -- here's a guy who runs off with his mother but yet the sister kills the father and runs off with the brother of the guy who owns the truck' . . . It's like an old country-western song!"
After a while, she and her husband got the idea to invite some friends over one Sunday evening for "Omelets and Opera." Ward's husband, Gordon Hunt, was responsible for the omelets. The occasional get-togethers in their living room for food and song eventually became a monthly thing and soon they were looking for venues for what was becoming a hit.
Small cabaret clubs gave way to theaters which in turn led to sold-out tours in opera houses and philharmonic halls. The current show, which is directed by Hunt, has played such un-living-room-like gigs as The Kennedy Center and the Carnegie Recital Hall. Gordon Hunt, by the way, is the famed television and stage director who also happens to be the father of Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Helen Hunt.
Because she has the comedic opera act market pretty much cornered, I wondered if she ever set out to create this niche for herself.
"I didn't know I was doing that. I had no idea there was such a niche. I just thought it was fun. It never occurred to me to do it in front of people outside of our home because of all the truly wonderful opera performers out there and their fans. I'm as surprised as anybody by all this."
Do those performers and fans ever react negatively to her show's treatment of the traditions? "The performers have been so nice to me. They see I'm bringing in new audiences, younger audiences. I'm not making fun of the music, and I'm singing the music as written and to the best of my abilities. Some fans may not like a particular voice, but I haven't really had much negativity."
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Ward's day job couldn't be much more removed from the concert halls of the world -- since the '70s, she has worked as a voice-over actress and singer in hundreds and hundreds of commercials and cartoons. A couple of her better known character voices are that Stone Age hottie, Betty Rubble of The Flintstones and Scooby Doo's gal pal with the really big glasses, Velma. Indeed, on the day we spoke, she was getting ready to head to a recording session for a new Scooby Doo CD-ROM game.
I had to know if session singers for commercial spots find it an odd experience to be in a recording studio belting out a tune for some local car dealer or maybe a bug spray.
"Not at all. It's actually a lot of fun. Most everyone in the business has a great sense of humor, so it's always good to work with them. Plus you make a really nice tidy sum for maybe 35 to 40 minutes' work, and you don't have to dress up or leave town. We usually have a few laughs at the session, and then you get to go home."
"Stand-Up Opera" with B.J. Ward is scheduled to be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. Tickets are $22. For details call 480-994-2787 (SCA) or 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).