“Indescribable” was how critics hailed her performance. From there, she toured all the great opera houses, from Minsk to Chernobyl, before finding love. She was 17. He was 78. But their passion knew no age. “From the moment we met,” she recalls dreamily, “I knew we would be together for the rest of his life.”
After her dear Nicky passed away, Smirnoff-Skyy was left destitute, with nothing but her furs and jewels, Picassos and Chagalls to comfort her. So she left Europe, destined for a new life — and new stages — in a new world.
Now one of San Francisco’s most recognizable figures, a regal shot of white hair streaking her bouffant, she regales audiences with memories of singing her way across America, starting with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. As Orlofsky in the Met’s production of Die Fledermaus, she astonished audiences with a surprise encore in the second act: “Old Man River,” performed a cappella.
Amid recollections of her many famous friends, like soprano Beverly “Bubbles” Sills and grunge icon Kurt Cobain (“I greatly inspired his work”), Smirnoff-Skyy introduces her alter-ego: real-life opera singer and actor J. Conrad Frank.
His performances as Smirnoff-Skyy — “eastern Europe’s most sought-after mezzo-soprano understudy” — plumb a rich history in opera: Drag has long had a place on the opera stage. Castration led to generations of men portraying women in the Baroque period, and “pants roles” remain common for women to this day. Some characters even cross the traditional gender binary several times: In Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a woman typically plays Octavian, a man who dresses as a woman to seduce and ensnare the lecherous Baron Ochs.
But as storied a history as opera and drag have together, performers like Frank wonder what the future might look like for the two art forms — and whether opera will retain its place in queer culture.
Frank, a native of San Mateo, California, grew up on the opera stage. As a member of the Ragazzi Boys Chorus in the 1990s, he was often called upon to play children at San Francisco Opera with his fellow chorus members. His first performance? Just like his character Smirnoff-Skyy, he debuted in Carmen.
“I still remember the damn words to the kids’ chorus: Avec la garde montante, nous arrivons. Nous voilà. Sonne, trompette éclatante! Taratata,” he recites.
At 7 years old, nothing felt so big or so grand as the opera house. Frank marveled at scene changes that slid by like magic, and there were whispers even an elephant had once appeared in a show. After performances, he and other child choristers would crowd dressing room doors for pictures and autographs. Sylvia McNair, star of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, took a particular liking to Frank. He says she let him perch in her dressing room, where she chit-chatted about jewelry theft and other backstage gossip.
One night, as the opera house slowly emptied, Frank stepped onto the quiet stage. The ghost light was on. No one was around. He took a moment to sing to himself in front of the 3,146-seat theater. “It just reminds you how expansive and how full the world can be,” he says.
But Frank’s teenage years brought rebellion, and by college, opera’s spell had lessened. “I have the only parents in the world who were like, ‘You have to go into music. Why do you want to go into architecture?’”
Frank ultimately did train as a professional countertenor, but the LGBTQ+ community around San Francisco’s opera house was rapidly changing.
The opera house had once been “a place where a lot of gay people went and felt very secure and safe, hobnobbing amongst the elite as it were,” Frank explains. His older friends would swap tales of meeting each other in the bathrooms: stories “that ought not be discussed in mixed company,” he says with a smile.
But while a generation of LGBTQ people felt at home at the opera, Frank observed a shift occurring around the time he was on stage. “When AIDS happened, I think a generation of men especially died that embraced opera wholeheartedly,” he says. “In the ‘90s and 2000s, there was an unintentional pushback against things that were valued by a generation of gay men before me. So opera was no longer something that felt like it was ours.”
For the Nigerian and British drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat, that sense of alienation remains relevant today. The gift of a Glyndebourne Festival album of Porgy and Bess helped spark Gateau’s initial interest in opera, back when he was a boarding school student in England studying for his A Level qualifications.
His interest only flourished from there. He took singing lessons and even asked for special dispensation from his school to stay up late and watch La Traviata one night. Opera music “was about escaping into the romance and beauty of something that I didn’t understand but I felt understood me,” Gateau says.
What was even more exciting was to discover black artists like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Willard White — “faces like mine,” he recalls. And then there were composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who drew Gateau in not only with the beauty of his music but also with his struggles in a homophobic society.
Though Gateau went on to study law at university, his sonorous baritone and penchants for humor and skin-tight Lycra made him a hit on the cabaret circuit. That soon led to engagements with the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, and London’s National Theatre.
And last year, those skills took him all the way to Bayreuth, the annual music festival in Germany dedicated to all things Wagner. Director Tobias Kratzer has approached Gateau with a role designed specifically for him: a non-speaking part in his upcoming production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Kratzer, as Gateau recalls, was interested in interrogating opera’s identity: the idea that “it’s liberal on paper, but in practice it can be really conservative.” He weaponized the plot of Tannhäuser to investigate that split.
In the story, the knight Tannhäuser is torn between two different women — figures that represent opposing lifestyles and world views. In Kratzer's retelling, the virtuous Elizabeth would stand for conformity. And the pagan goddess Venus would symbolize, as Kratzer told the German news outlet DW, “a world in which art and life are united.”
Gateau was enlisted as part of Venus’s crew, one of two original characters created for the show. The nearly four-hour-long opera involved Gateau running around, making mischief with Venus and a co-star on stage, before taking his cabaret act outside during intermissions, to perform free for the public.
Everything the director had storyboarded “translated wonderfully on stage,” Gateau says. And then came opening night. At the end of the performance, the chorus and chorus master took their bows. Then his Venus crew co-star bowed. Then him. That’s when he heard the boos.
It wasn’t the first time in the evening Gateau detected rumblings from the crowd. He felt it earlier in the performance when he threw a rainbow flag, as planned, over the harp at the end of Act II. But the rejection he heard at curtain call really hurt. “I think your world changes,” he says. “There was the ‘before,’ the Gateau waiting to go and bow. And the Gateau after I bowed.”
Colleagues after the show speculated that perhaps the jeers derived from the fact that the character Gateau played was not original to Wagner. But Gateau wonders, if that was the case, why wasn’t his co-star booed as well?
“In this opera, there’s a part of my drag that I can’t take off, which is now centralized in this piece, which includes my color and my sexuality,” he says. He adds that he was the “only visible black queer person on stage” and the only black person, period, aside from one member of the chorus.
“So [I’d] take off all the drag but still be the only black person leaving the building,” he explains. “Meaning that even after the opera was over, the performance of what I was playing didn’t end.”
The experience shook his passion for opera, one he’d had since his days as a school child. “That is something that will never not have happened. The love is forever tainted.”
Continuing the conversation about diversity, he says, is crucial. Violence like the recent killing of the black jogger Ahmaud Aubrey have him thinking about how the realities of inequality can be represented through opera. But he admits to being discouraged that there aren’t more big-name black performers on the opera scene today.
“If I had never discovered Jessye and Leontyne and Barbara [Hendricks] and Grace [Bumbry], would I have ever seen myself in this art form?” he asks. He says it can feel like “a fight to be seen.”
As for local drag performer J. Conrad Frank, he remembers being inspired as an understudy in San Francisco Opera’s production of Harvey Milk. It was “magic” to see the community depicting itself on stage, he says.
Opera is fun. Ridiculous. Excessive. All the same things Frank says he loves in drag. But the art form’s sense of self-importance eventually grated on Frank’s nerves. It inspired him to invent the over-the-top Katya Smirnoff-Skyy.
“So many people in the opera community take themselves so seriously at all times. And that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says.
He’s heartened by the increasing number of trans performers he’s seen in programs and the growing embrace of casting that goes beyond gender and voice type. But he hopes that opera continues to look outside itself and interact with the community at large.
“There’s great beauty in opera, and every person who goes to opera takes something away,” he says. “You may not think you’re going to get much out of a late 18th-century opera. What do you have in common with Mozart? But you go in there and you watch Figaro, and you can’t help but laugh. You can’t help but be moved.”
After all, in the words of eastern Europe’s most sought-after mezzo-soprano understudy, opera really isn’t about the notes. Or the lyrics. Or rhythm even. It’s about passion — and that, Frank says, is something we all share.
Learn more about Katya Smirnoff-Skyy on social media or through her website. And you can follow Le Gateau Chocolat on his social media or by visiting his artist page.