Voice coach Ira Siff doesn't lead the life his parents thought he would. On days when he is performing, he gets up at 11 a.m., drinks an abstemious pot of tea and doesn't speak until noon. He warms up his voice with exercises and scales, goes out for his only meal of the day, and returns to his New York apartment for more vocal gymnastics. Around 6:30, he leaves for the performance site.
There he dons a long gown and wig -- and turns into Vera Galupe-Borszkh, a larger-than-life diva of the old school.
"It's a life of renunciation, I tell you," says Siff, with a dose of irony, and only a trace of his original Brooklyn accent.
For nine years Siff, 44, has been the director and star of La Gran Scena, a comedic, all-male opera company that is playing at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater through June 9.
But getting there hasn't been all that easy. Like an opera, Siff's life has had its share of promises (a college scholarship), its setbacks (an early midlife crisis at 32), its grand finale (this year's Kennedy Center engagement is twice as long as last year's).
His is the story that asks the question: Can a nice boy from the hippie era find happiness as a Slavic soprano who yearns to sing Italian roles? "As opposed to some respectable Jewish occupation like brain surgeon," says Siff.
The answer appears to be yes.
La Gran Scena, an eight-member Manhattan-based company that affectionately spoofs grand opera and has attracted the applause of such opera stars as Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland, is Siff's creation. His driving passion was always opera, which he fell in love with at age 12 when he was taken to see Sutherland's "Lucia di Lammermoor," but he never gave much thought to singing as a career. Even though he graduated from New York's Cooper Union with a degree in painting and etching, what really attracted him to the school was that he could live in Manhattan, take voice lessons and see the Metropolitan Opera three or four times a week for $1.25 for upstairs standing room.
Even after Siff took off as a tenor, he was never attracted by conventional show business. His world was the alternative theater scene of the 1970s, in particular composer Al Carmines' Judson Church operalike "oratorios," in which he performed from 1970 to '75, followed by five years of his own cabaret acts.
"I was never a particularly convincing leading man," he says now. "And I didn't see my career in traditional terms. It warped my sense of what a career was because I was this well-known sort of cult person in New York, but I never had to go to an audition or learn to dance. It was totally unrealistic -- which is what the '60s and '70s were all about."
His parents were confused. But supportive. "If you'd only take dancing lessons, with your voice you could try out for Broadway shows," he remembers his mother saying. "She was being practical. But I didn't know what she was talking about."
In his early thirties, his lack of direction made him desperate. An invitation to a private performance of what turned out to be two men pretending to be divas gave him the inspiration he needed. "I practically elevated," he recalls. "It was like Marcel Marceau finding mime. It was so funny, so dramatic. I felt that I had found exactly what I should have been doing all along but I was just too shy to do -- and also too horrified because of the drag. I just couldn't deal with that."
But eventually he did. What turned him around was seeing the late Charles Ludlam perform at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in Greenwich Village -- and seeing that Ludlam wearing a dress could be moving and funny. La Gran Scena was born.
A typical performance by the group, whose members use stage names like Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi (tenor), Sylvia Bills (guest hostess) and Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglione (maestro), is a presentation of nostalgic parodies of an era of opera that is no more. It is an art form that combines playing the music straight -- well, mainly -- and going for laughs on every other level: costumes, props, gestures, accents, timing and exaggerated makeup and dress. The result is frank spoof, not only of a style of opera but also of specific opera stars.
Siff, a friendly guy with longish curly hair, writes most of the narration that holds the show together. He takes clear delight in what he does. "There is a lot of emotional vent to singing operatic music -- which is extremely passionate -- in a female persona," he says. "What our show strives to do on a serious level is to bring back this passionate kind of singing, but to give the laughs at the same time. I'm not just giving in to some side of my personality that is better left on the analyst's couch."
Siff is joined in the company by a group of equally passionate opera lovers, who work by day as a bartender, a baritone, a tenor, a secretary, an ad salesman, a voice coach and a pianist. Siff supports himself by teaching vocal technique to show singers and interpretation to opera singers. None of the company members is able to earn a living through La Gran Scena alone.
Years ago, when Siff first told his family what he wanted to do, the news was not all that easy for his parents. "They were horrified," he says. "I had to break it to them gently. First I had to tell them I wasn't going to be an artist but a singer. Then it was an opera singer. Then it was a diva. It was a big stretch for them."
He remembers his parents' and his own reaction to the company's first big break at the Florida Music Festival -- on a double bill with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (an internationally known comedic drag ballet company). His parents, who live in Palm Beach, drove to Fort Lauderdale to see them. "Can you imagine," says Siff, "my mother in the audience. My parents are 80 years old. I was stricken with terror." But the next day, Siff's mother proudly showed the "rave review" from the Miami Herald around her apartment house swimming pool. "Whatever it meant getting past for them, they did it," he recalls.
These days, when Siff isn't teaching or performing, he is busy with company business: sending out press kits, writing to festivals and opera companies, answering letters, renting rehearsal space. He worries about getting a third administrator for the group (he shares administrative responsibilities with a woman who runs a child care business from her apartment); about developing new material; about meeting the requirements of the company's $6,500 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts (in this case, the problem has nothing to do with obscenity. Instead, the glitch is that La Gran Scena has been performing in a cabaret where food is served. The council wants Siff to rent a hall). And he worries how to keep his art form in tune with the times.
He doesn't worry about who he is. Siff's day-to-day routine is a more or less normal New York East Village life. Although he has had intimate relationships with both men and women, he has lived alone in the same apartment building for 20 years. And although he has long ago warmed to the comedic power of drag on stage, his closets at home are full of jeans and hip clothes. "I'm not going into health food restaurants in slinky black dresses," he says. "It's just a part in a play."