Here is something special: This engrossing solo show by legendary soprano Julia Migenes, one of the great operatic voices of her generation, is a crackling and enthralling celebration of a genius' life in art. What opera fan will not find it astonishing to enter the Odyssey Theatre's cozy and intimate environs (well, cozy and intimate when compared to Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Met, anyway) and find that he or she is a mere paper airplane's toss away from one of the world's most vocally gifted singers?
Migenes' show is partly a one-person tour de force with arias attached and partly a throwback to a type of performance art that's currently unfashionable—the classical music satire. But what delights here is Migenes' amusing, larger-than-life persona: In spite of her attempts to recast herself as a typical gal who just has the gift of song, she inevitably emerges as what she is—the consummate prima donna, in the best sense of the term. The beguiling show ultimately emerges as remarkably similar to Terrence McNally's Master Class, except a diva star plays herself.
Migenes opens with some wry details about her personal fears—how so much hangs on the tiny vocal cords that she's constantly twisting out of shape. And she delivers a few choice gossipy backstage details (no names attached, though) that are titillating but unlikely to offend even the "opera extremists" she advises to leave during the show's pre-curtain speech. The digressions are enhanced by a charmingly unpretentious attitude toward her own work—her take on opera is refreshingly ironic—and by some choice one-liners (she penned the book with contributions from comedian Bruce Vilanch).
In addition, Migenes performs several of her favorite arias, some of which—like her take on the loopiness of Lucia Di Lammermoor and her over-wrought death song from La Traviata—are played for laughs, with Migenes poking fun at the lavish angst of the ultrahistrionic texts. Others, such as her desperately heartfelt rendition of Desdemona's "Willow Song" from Otello and her tender Mimi from La Bohème, are respectfully depicted and are clearly linked to events in her own life. But the show ends on a lighthearted note: She dons a fat suit to portray the proverbial "fat lady" singing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
Migenes' voice occasionally seems slightly ragged, which might be a result of the show's daunting performance schedule. We find ourselves worrying for her instrument when, between songs, she takes long breaks (punctuated by pianist Victoria Kirsch's lovely interludes) to sip from a water glass and down throat lozenges. Migenes also occasionally seems a little self-conscious onstage, with line readings that could benefit from some comic refocusing. Yet ultimately this show is a priceless opportunity to see and hear one of the world's great performers, and it shouldn't be missed.
"Diva on the Verge," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W. Los Angeles. Tues., Thurs., Sat. 8 p.m. Dec. 9-Jan. 6; Tues. and Sat. 8 p.m., Jan. 16-30. $20-25. (310) 477-2055.