by Ben Ulansey
When “Andy: A Popera” opens Opera Philadelphia’s fall season on Sept. 10, it will mark the next step in the continuing evolution of local composer Heath Allen, who served as music director for the Germantown Friends School upper school musical from 1997 to 2013. “Andy” was originally intended to be a small undertaking, exploring the life of pop-artist Andy Warhol, in which Heath and The Bearded Ladies theater troupe could explore the meeting of the worlds of cabaret and opera in a playful context.
But the project took on a life of its own over the last two years. Heath, 62, says that “it somehow morphed into this gigantic being — 12 opera singers, six cabaret singers, a five-piece band and live video projections, all taking place in a large warehouse in Northern Liberties. It deserves to be a science fiction movie: ‘The Popera that Ate Andy Warhol!’”
Heath, who has performed for private parties at countless Northwest Philly venues as well as at concerts at Woodmere Art Museum and Pastorius Park, area churches, synagogues and clubs, has described a composition process that was collaborative in every conceivable fashion. The original rehearsals were group improvisations involving the cast, led by John Jarboe. Heath took tapes of those improvs and tried to craft opera scenes from them as he began to grapple both with the nature of opera and the “utter simplicity and confounding mystery one encounters when confronting Warhol’s life and art.”
He had composed a couple of one-act operas before, but they were from a satirical point of view. Transitioning to working more strictly within the operatic form, he said, proved interesting, difficult and very satisfying, often all three at the same time. When the piece called for comedic moments, he was right in his element.
“However, the initial musical steps of trying to find a musical language using both cabaret and opera voices and somehow fitting Andy Warhol were quite challenging at first. The first glimpses of the right musical language were hard-won and very exciting to me when discovered.”
The collaborative aspect didn’t end there: a second composer, Dan Visconti, was brought in, one who has been more steeped in the world of opera. So their two approaches had to be brought together, using Heath’s material as the springboard. “Dan and I bring very different approaches to this show,” said Heath. “I am very text driven, very aware of how the music supports the drama; a lot of Dan’s music is more atmospheric and expands outward or inward from the drama onstage.”
In Heath’s notes about the process, he elaborated: “While it’s unusual for an opera to have two composers, it seems appropriate for a popera about Andy Warhol, an artist who co-painted with Basquiat and often overlaid two images of the same subject (for example, his “Last Supper”) on the same canvas. My music and Dan’s music likewise exist side to side, sometimes commenting on each other and sometimes revealing two very different approaches to our ever-growing, ever-morphing subject: Andy Warhol.”
Heath himself has spent his lifetime exploring different approaches, too. As a child at the piano, he would play thunderstorms instead of scales. In college, he gravitated towards avant-garde jazz, while still keeping his ears open to the funk and rock of his time. Soon afterwards, he began exploring the world of modern music theater with the Big Small Theater Company. He released his first jazz record in the mid-’70s, which was followed by many more.
The necessity of a musician to make a living prompted Allen, who now lives in West Philly, to co-lead with Ken Ulansey (full disclosure: my dad and Heath’s friend since college) a band that plays at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social events. Chosen “Best of Philly” by Philadelphia Magazine, the band plays playful combinations not just from the world of pop culture but also Zydeco, Klezmer, Balkan, Afro-pop, et al.
Heath, a native of Harrisburg, has lived in Philly ever since coming to the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. He has worked extensively composing for modern dance, chiefly with the Karen Bamonte Dance Company, which culminated in his album “Red/Blue…Shift”; he taught classes at Swarthmore, was the resident music theater coordinator at Germantown Friends School and one of the members of the Cats Pajamas, an award-winning children’s music group. His recent CDs have included French cabaret music, Italian film music, Cuban Cha Cha, Argentinian Tango, etc.
While his reputation around Philadelphia for years has been chiefly as a jazz pianist, Heath said he could never find a way to be a complete creative artist within the form, always having one foot in the theater world. He found himself attracted to cabaret and opera since they both “had become somewhat arcane art forms in the second half of the 20th century, hanging out in some dusty corner of the art world with poetry and oil painting, the province of high-brows and definitely the opposite of cutting-edge.
“Then Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson came along with ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in 1976, and suddenly opera was taken off the shelf and found itself in the wild west again. Everybody has forgotten the rules, so now cabaret and opera are perfect vehicles for the most crazy experiments imaginable.”
“Andy: A Popera” will be performed Sept. 10 to 20 at Opera Philadelphia, 1526 N. American St., in conjunction with the 2015 Fringe Festival as part of Neighborhood Fringe. Tickets are available at 215-732-8400, operaphila.org and fringearts.com.