A fresh take on the stuffy fundraising gala: Long Beach Opera’s Divalicious Drag-Off

Strong drinks, drag queens and… opera? Not what you’d expect of a typical fundraising gala from one of the five major performing arts institutions in Long Beach.

This year, instead of the formalized speeches, polite rounds of applause and having to ask the person next to you at Table No. 6 to pass the butter balls, Long Beach Opera will have an “UnGala.”

It’s LBO’s new take on hosting fundraising events, defined as “a way of undoing any previous negative affiliations one may associate with overly stuffy galas” and designed to be more fun, irreverent and just as inclusive as its productions.

“Every year we’ve always done galas, but we’re not a regular organization, we do lots of off-the-beaten-path stuff, we tend toward the unusual. So, we decided to stop doing them,” said LBO executive director, Jennifer Rivera. “This one is my baby, I’m a huge fan of drag; I’ve always thought opera and drag were really great partners.”

Dressing in drag, for example, has been a completely common and accepted practice in opera since at least the 1700s, during the time of Handel and Mozart, said Rivera. More and more women were being written into operas to play young men or “trouser roles” because they could sing at a higher pitch. Rivera, who was a mezzo-soprano before transitioning to the more administrative side of the industry, said she often played the part of a man.

“People have never batted an eye throughout history that this is how it’s done,” Rivera said.

LBO Executive Director and CEO Jennifer Rivera in a “trouser role.” Courtesy Jennifer Rivera.

Rivera is eager to remind the opera crowd what the classical music genre has in common with the art of drag—and the fabulous drag queens of Hamburger Mary’s—and the drag brunch crowd that opera, in terms of LBO’s productions at least, is quite simply not as “boring and stuffy” as the reputation that tends to precede it.

“This idea of being an outsider and using performance to find your authentic self is something both art forms have in common,” said Rivera.

The first of the four UnGalas is a Divalicious Drag-Off on Sunday, Oct. 6 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at… not an event center or banquet hall, but Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Avenue, to be hosted by Long Beach’s own celebrity drag queen, Jewels, and LBO engagement director and singer, Derrell Acon.

Opera singers will be paired with drag queens to perform as teams: the Opera Diva will first perform an aria, followed by a lip-synced number by one of the queens (think “Un Bel Di” followed by “I Will Survive”) to be judged on originality and fabulosity by a panel including the first drag politician, Maebe A. Girl, opera diva Yolanda West, Long Beach Museum of Art executive director Ron Nelson, Arts Council for Long Beach executive director Griselda Suarez, among other notable members of the arts community.

And yes, there will be Hamburger Mary’s famous buffet, strong drinks, a chance to win a cruise to the Mexican Riviera, and, well, it’ll be hard not to party.

LBO’s efforts to ensure this first Ungala is inclusive is apparent through its ticketing. A number of free passes were given to youth involved with The LGBTQ Center of Long Beach, while a limited number of tickets will be available for $40 for those under the age of 40 (use code UNDER40 at checkout). Additionally, there is a batch of $50 tickets available to those brand new to LBO (use NEW50 at checkout).

General admission tickets are $150. For more information, to purchase a ticket and to learn more about all four UnGalas, visit the website here.

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.