Step Right Up

February 20th, 2018

It’s not often that contortionists, fire breathers, and sword swallowers make their way onto the Met stage, but for his wild new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, director Phelim McDermott has assembled a troupe of talented sideshow and circus performers to populate his Coney Island–inspired setting. The Met’s Christopher Browner recently sat down with some of the uniquely talented artists poised to make their Met debuts.

Snake charmer Zoe Ziegfeld can barely remember a time when she wasn’t enamored with scaly reptiles. “I’ve been keeping and working with snakes since I was eight,”she says. “They’re beautiful. There’s something very meditative about meeting a snake.” It wasn’t long before she combined her love of dance and performing with her passion for these animals. As the snake charmer in the Met’s new Così, Ziegfeld will appear with a nine-foot-long boa constrictor. “It’s a lot about presentation,” she says. “I might do a split while I hold the snake over my head, or I might even kiss the snake on the mouth.” And while snakes are not regular performers at the Met, Ziegfeld actually sees some similarities between her art form and the world of opera. “Both are larger than life. Going to the opera or going to the sideshow takes you out of your everyday existence and reminds you of the magic of the world.”

“Fundamentally, it’s exactly what it appears to be,” says Betty Bloomerz, who, along with her partner Ray Valenz, will be swallowing swords in Così. “People sometimes don’t believe that the swords are real. If it looks effortless, then I take it as a compliment.” And no wonder she makes her act look easy: Bloomerz holds the unofficial record for the longest sword swallowed by a female—“28 inches, all the way down to the hilt,” adds Valenz proudly.“More than anything,” he explains, “you have to learn to control and make voluntary muscle reactions that are normally involuntary. You have to learn to discover and control parts of you that you weren’t even aware of before.” What truly makes the pair unique is their duet work. “There’s a maneuver where I go upside down onto Ray’s shoulders, and he swallows a sword,” says Bloomerz. “It’s very acrobatic. I’m really excited to bring our act to the Met because the audience is going to see something really dynamic and really bold—even from the last row.”

A lifelong opera fan, Sage Sovereign never expected that breathing fire would be her ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. “I’ve wanted to perform at the Met since I was five or six years old, but I thought I was going to be a singer then,” she laughs. Sovereign’s performances often include a variety of different skills. “I do anything from fire eating—extinguishing a flame inside my mouth—to fire breathing—creating a plume of fire that’s sometimes twice the size of my body” she says. “I also manipulate some fire props, like fans, a parasol, and even dresses made of fire. And I actually make a lot of these props myself.” It’s an art form that has always fascinated her. “Fire can be something incredibly destructive, but it also allows me to be very, very expressive. I’m always trying to tell a story with my performances.” More than anything, she sees her appearance in Così as an opportunity to reach a new audience. “We have dedicated our lives and our time and our bodies to this, so I hope we help to interest people in the world of sideshow and circus.”

Contortionists have long been a mainstay of the sideshow, so it is fitting that a few of these flexible phenoms will appear on the boardwalk in McDermott’s production. Anna Venizelos found her way to contortion by way of traditional circus acrobatics. “After two years of training and doing smaller performances as an aerialist, I joined Cirque de Soleil in Montreal,” she remembers. “I always loved contortion as well, and when I had time backstage, I would practice a little bit.” Nowadays, contortion has become her main act. “My specialty is back bending and hand balancing. I like to do slow sculptural movement. It’s somewhere between ballet, yoga, and rhythmic gymnastics.” On the other hand, Leo the Human Gumby performs a much newer form of contortion called bone breaking. “When people see me contort, they think I'm double-jointed, but I'm not,” he says, reflecting on 11 years of work to become super-flexible. “I can pretty much bend my arms in ways you'd think were impossible. I can rotate my arms 360 degrees. I can dislocate my shoulder, and you actually see the cuff rotating.”

Unlike some of her sideshow cast mates, Cristina Pitter, who appears as the bearded lady, brings a broader range of skills to the Met stage. “I’ve never considered myself just an actor,” she explains. “I identify as an artist and a storyteller—I paint, I dance, I do so many things that it’s impossible for me to stick to just one.” For her, the process of preparing for her role was one of extraordinary discovery. “I did research on the folklore of the circus and sideshows and read a lot about the history of this character, the bearded lady,” she says. “There is this element of magic—the magic is in the fluidity. It’s such a conundrum to some and a taboo.” For Pitter, there’s also a magic in being a part of McDermott’s vision for the piece. “I’m excited about the use of real sideshow athletes and entertainers. They’re passionate about giving breath to a queer side of the world—and I mean that in the largest sense of things that are strange and depart from the norm,” she beams. “I get chills thinking about it.”