Nearly 10 years ago, Angélica Négron said of her musical style that she liked pretty sounds covered in layers and layers of dust, so that to find the beauty in them you have to wipe the lenses of your glasses. The layers have only gotten richer in the last decade for the Puerto Rican composer who, at 37, has come into her own among a generation of artists who’ve orchestrated balancing acts between contemporary indie and pop and the quote-unquote classical tradition. It’s gotten to a point for Négron, along with many of her peers, that any attempt at classifying a style or genre is a fool’s errand.
The blessing-curse of having both consciousness and choice means that it can take us an entire lifetime (if not more) to feel a sense of wholeness versus fragmentation. But as Négron’s musical and artistic layers have become more inclusive, her work has grown increasingly more comfortable in its own skin.
That work continues at National Sawdust with the January 5 world premiere of an excerpt from Chimera, a lip-sync opera-in-progress Négron is writing for drag-queen performers and chamber ensemble. Négron is developing Chimera in close collaboration with its drag performers during her National Sawdust artist residency, finding resonant themes around fantasy, illusion, and the complexity and boundlessness of identity.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: We’re seeing a 30-minute preview of what will eventually become a full hourlong or hour-and-a-half opera. What will this excerpt of Chimera look like?
ANGÉLICA NEGRÓN: This will feature three drag performers, and I’m hoping to ultimately work with five to seven queens, so this will be kind of a little excerpt that’s self-contained. This is all very new, and it might be that it’s a section that’s eventually spaced the same way; it might be something that we spread out.
The idea behind the opera is to explore the intricacies of identity through the lens of the queens that are performing. So there’s not an actual narrative thread at the moment; we’re just really interested in getting to know the performers, and then writing songs specifically for them that showcase not only their drag personas, but also showcase them as a person, and finding the intersections between their own personal stories and my own personal story.
So it sounds like the piece is still coming together, but the roots of it run very deep?
It’s very much inspired by the women that shaped me during my childhood, very important people in my life: of course my mother, and other family members, but most importantly actual drag queens that I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with during my childhood in Puerto Rico. This project is kind of an homage to them.
One thing that struck me when I first read about Chimera is opera’s long history of men singing women’s roles and women singing men’s roles, and the layers of identity that go into that. Was that something you considered in bringing this together?
Not that much. I have been thinking a lot more about the historical tradition of opera being something in which the voice is the main, important thing, and I’m interested in writing an opera in which most of it will be recorded voice. So through the absence of the physical presence of the voice, there’s performances that are being born out of that absence, and there are people that are giving life to those disembodied voices. I am interested in that other historical side of tradition, all that comes with the word opera.
Can you say more about the “absence of the physical presence of the voice,” and what’s born out of that absence?
A lot of this work is about making visible the things that are not necessarily visible. Sometimes that might be in a very literal way, in which we actually see a queen getting out of drag or a queen getting into drag, from a place in which they’re more of their just “normal” self and kind of transforming. But there’s another side of this, too, that’s about making sides of ourselves visible to the audience that relate more to their personal stories and their vulnerabilities. Usually when you see these performers, they’re so fabulous and confident that it’s easy to forget [that they’re also human]. I’m interested in exploring that vulnerable side of them that we don’t often get to see.
So that, for me, connects in a way to this idea of bringing something out that is not necessarily evident at first sight, which also kind of plays into the idea of this being mostly a lip-sync opera. There’s going to be queens that will sing — for the January 5 preview, Alexis Michelle will sing one of the songs — and we’ll also hear their speaking voices, but most of it is recorded voices. So the actual singer is absent from the stage, and we hear their voice through the performance of someone else and through someone else’s, and what does that add to their performance?
It’s interesting that you’re focusing on these ideas of layers of identity and making connections, because you’ve also discussed how your path to your current work came after negotiating different musical identities.
Definitely. I come from a place of, in a way, trying to prove myself — that this was something I could do, and that I was capable of being a part of the composer world. Because it’s something that is mostly associated with academia and institutions, there’s baggage that comes with it. For a long, long time I thought that I had to write music to fit into those contexts to feel validated, in a way. Now, just saying that for me is like, Come on, why? But it took me a while to get to a place of feeling comfortable and accepting all the other music that I was making. That was really fulfilling to me, and I found my joy in it musically, even though I spent less time doing that than writing an orchestra piece, which takes up so much of your time. But I still was connecting to other music. I didn’t even know you could be a composer until I was in my late teens.
I think I see it as a detour, in a way, because I started making music that’s closer to what I’m making now. But it just took me a while to make a connection between the music I was writing outside of the concert hall and the music I was playing at home in San Juan. It took a long detour for me to make sense of this—that this is all just who I am, and it’s not this kind of compartmentalization. There aren’t these separate containers in which my music exists, and there’s this thing for the concert hall and this thing for my band and then this thing for… it’s all one thing.
Just saying it out loud, it feels very strange that at one moment in my life, that’s how it was. But I think it’s sometimes easy to lose perspective when most of the music you’re writing exists in the context of academia, and there are certain expectations around that. Once I stopped caring about all those things, I was way more excited about the music I was writing, and about finding intersections between the music I was writing and all the different factors of my musical life.
Connecting back with drag, it’s liberating in a way to stop worrying over how you’re going to label one aspect of your persona or art and instead consider the full gestalt of the person or the body of work.
There’s something very appealing for me in that case. Since I was young, I didn’t even understand what was going on: I was just hanging out with my mom’s friends and they just happened to put on shows, and were mostly men who dressed as women. Since that was such an important part of my childhood, that marked me deeply. I’ve always been really drawn to this irreverence and kind of empowerment that doesn’t care about what other people say. Even though that was true for when I was younger, I feel like I lost track of that as soon as I started writing music on paper. In a way, over the past couple of years, I’ve been finding my way back to that path, which seems like the right fit for me.
What do you hope Chimera will look like, ultimately?
That’s a big, big question. At the moment, I’m working with three queens: Miz Jade, who’s done lip syncing for two very early songs of this project; Alexis Michelle, who is singing one live; and now the new addition which is Desmond Is Amazing, an 11-year-old “drag kid.” He calls himself kid, not queen. For January 5, the other big thing that’s happening is that it’s going to be staged for the first time, so I’m working with a Dutch director [Jorinde Keesmaat] doing the piece for this.
I would love for this to grow in a way that allows me to get to know more drag performers, and to be able to connect to them in a way that I can find connections between their stories and my stories, and share them in a way that feels honest and genuine to everyone. I’m very aware that this is an opera that I’m writing for drag-queen performers and I am not a drag queen, as much as I would love to think I can be one. So I am coming at this from an outside perspective. That said, I do have a very deep connection with the art form since I was a child, and I’ve always wanted to do something that honors them. So I’m hoping that with this preview, and with the work moving forward, that it could be something that all the performers are a part of, and hopefully the audience members feel it’s coming from a very genuine place. That’s a big goal I have for this.
I think about that a lot as a writer, too: the question of what gives us the right to tell other peoples’ stories, and how do you manage to tell someone else’s story in a way that is honest for them.
It’s been a lot about trusting the process that we’re going to make something meaningful out of really taking our time to get to know each performer and their story, and writing something specifically for them that also connects to my personal story. That could be a very beautiful place to be in, but also a very vulnerable and scary place to be in—not only as a composer, but also for the performers. I’m really grateful for their trust so far, and I’m really hopeful for the project moving forward that that trust gets even deeper, and that I get to make similar connections with new partners.
I’m also being very clear with [the performers], and hopefully with audiences, too, that this is something inspired by them and by my getting to know them. But where I’m interested in writing the music and libretto is in finding connections between their stories and my story. And within my story, there’s also the stories of the women that shaped me. Most importantly my mom, but also those drag queens. It’s kind of a diagram of me finding the connections between what I hear from them, and what’s connecting with me and what’s resonating.
In a way, Chimera is a character that we’re building out of their stories and my personal story. It’s kind of a hyper-character, and that’s why we’re seeing Chimera through three people that look very different and have different ages. They’re all sides of this one person, and this one person is kind of a collective. It comes from a collective experience of everyone that’s involved with the project—physically there, but also the people that come with me through my personal experiences.
Going back to the absence and the presence of the absence, it’s a way of me being onstage with my mom, my aunts, all these drag queens. It’s my way of having conversations with them that I’ve probably never had or had a long time ago, or conversations that I would love to have with people that were part of that world for me when I was young and have since passed. So it’s a lot about honoring that lineage in a way.
Angélica Negrón’s Chimera will be presented during the 2019 FERUS Festival at National Sawdust on Jan. 5 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.