Keep Your Ears Open

BY ELI JACOBSON | The word “diva” has become overused and abused and the homosexuals – yes, that means you Missy! – are partially to blame. Rightfully bestowed in its original usage to honor such immortals as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and even Anna Netrebko of late, it also has often been applied to any popular, prominent female performer. The title is appropriate to such undeniably fierce female pop stars as Aretha Franklin but becomes meaningless when bestowed on pop tarts who have passed their sell-by date.

Dorothy Bishop, a friend to friends of Dorothy, is an operatically trained soprano with no musical boundaries who is determined to reclaim the title “diva” in all its high and low incarnations and get down and party with it. In her new cabaret evening “Viva la Diva!,” adapted from the act she honed working on cruise ships, she ranges from Puccini to Donna Summer, finding a common ground in glittery gowns and lots of attitude. The singer and her two male backup dancers, Ralph Coppola and Eric Thomas, presented the hour-long musical extravaganza at the Zipper Theater on June 29 to great acclaim.

No apologies in calling Dorothy Bishop a diva.

One could almost imagine Bishop as the artistic love child of Eleanor Steber and Bette Midler conceived at the Continental Baths sometime between either diva's appearance there in the early '70s. Bishop has sung opera professionally in New York and throughout the US, but has a flair for jazz, pop, and even disco. In another era, a composer like Jerome Kern or Sigmund Romberg would whip up a comic operetta vehicle for her. However, like a lot of unique but either unclassifiable or retro-styled talents she has found a home in cabaret.

A born performer, Bishop is unafraid to attack distinctly middlebrow material (Andrew Lloyd Webber for example) and give it both musical polish and integrity plus real dramatic urgency; her “With One Look” was worthy of Betty Buckley. A “Carmen” medley found the soprano giving solid classical renditions while, later on, “Nessun Dorma” from “Turandot” got a fun disco workover.

My personal favorite was the old Victor Herbert specialty number “Art is Calling for Me” (“I Want to be a Prima Donna, Donna, Donna…”) reworked in the second verse with some new lyrics referencing iTunes and iPods!

Vocally, the “poperatic” soprano is able to sing scat, belt, and go from chesty growling to high coloratura, jumping registers and genres with the facility of the late Evel Knievel vaulting a pyre of burning cars. Diction and clean, unfussy musicianship are the constant factors here plus a born showwoman's unfailing instincts for reaching her audience.

I would love to see some French chanson, Brazilian samba, or classic jazz worked into the act and perhaps take out one or two Lloyd Webber or “Man of la Mancha” numbers for New York audiences who generally are more sophisticated taste-wise than the cruise ship patrons the singer has been playing to. But that is mere ingrained critical curmudgeonliness. Whatever she sang, she was musical and fun.

Unafraid to laugh at herself while looking fierce in an array of costume changes designed by French couturier Jef Castaing, the Southern born soprano delighted both speaking and singing. Smoothly directed by our own James Jorden, a long-time friend of Dorothy and Dorothy's, the act immediately got a second booking at the Pillowfight Theater Festival on July 3. Before she embarks on another oceanic world tour, be sure to catch this divalicious performer whenever or wherever you hear she's unpacked her steamer trunks.