It consisted of works that LaBeija had sung in various auditions during her life: for an arts high school in Korea, the Juilliard pre-college program, the Manhattan School of Music, and finally Juilliard.
You might ask, what does LaBeija have to prove? In addition to being a classically trained tenor, she is the International Godmother of the Royal House of LaBeija and performs drag four nights a week at nightclubs around the city.
As it turns out, a lot. With anti-drag legislation popping up around the country, LaBeija’s concert felt like a compelling argument to treat drag with the same level of cultural reverence as, say, opera.
The concert was in honor of her father’s birthday—and though he wasn’t in the audience, the rest of LaBeija’s family was, prompting plentiful jokes about overbearing Asian parents. And mark your calendars: LaBeija has her own birthday concert at Lincoln Center’s Sidewalk Studio on May 17.
LaBeija wore a trailing purple sequin gown—which she kept yanking out from under her heels, to comedic effect—with chandelier-like earrings and matching nails, her hair drawn into the most elegant of beehives.
The adorable pianist, Lachlan Glen, wore a coordinated black sequin number. Throughout the night, the refrains of “Lachlan, hit it!” became even funnier.
The first piece on the program, “Baby Goat,” was a Korean children’s song. “It was the first song I ever sang in my life,” said LaBeija. “My dad,” who collected classical music and opera CDs, she said, “was instrumental to me in becoming the cross dresser I am today.”
This was followed by “Caro mio ben” by Tommaso Giordani. LaBeija has an incontestably fantastic voice, especially evident when she reached the high point: “Senza di te languisce il cor.” She then started hitting on an attractive man, who turned out to be a baritone, in the front row.
Next, LaBeija sang two arias by Paolo Tosti —“These are very sentimental for me”—and, just in time for Easter, “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley” from Handel’s Messiah.
“Can I lip sync something for y’all?” asked LaBeija, in a reversal of the norm. This “mid-program snack” consisted of soundbites from Disney’s Mulan (“Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?”) interspersed with Margaret Cho (“Are you gay?”).
But even more absurd was LaBeija’s rendition of Aaron Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat” in which she did voguing arms with every refrain of “my duck says, quack, quack.” In contrast, the most distinguished piece on the program was “Widmung” from Schumann’s Myrthen.
Lastly, inspired by POC singers like Leontyne Price, LaBeija sang “Ride on King Jesus.” “Who thought I’d have the opportunity to sing at the Guggenheim in full drag,” said LaBeija, who guessed she was probably the first to get tipped $35 in these prestigious halls.
She sang two encores, including her grandmother’s favorite song, “Danny Boy.” “My biggest regret is that I didn’t get to show her all of this,” she said, gesturing to all the fabulousness.
“I don’t want to get political, but,” said LaBeija—always the preface when about to get political—“For me, I don’t want to perform for kids.” Drag, she said, “is an art form.”
Some institutions, like the Guggenheim, seem to be catching on. Switch & Play recently performed “Vamp” at Lincoln Center. And Monet X Change recently appeared as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Minnesota Opera’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
It makes sense, as both opera and drag combine: music, dance, theater, comedy, costumes, and gender swapping. And success in both careers, I’ll add, requires an ego.
However, I don’t think LaBeija has reached her full potential yet. Imagine if she did a choreographed, full-drag program of opera works that were not quite so, well, student-y. She’d be unstoppable.
Photos: Diego Quintanar