Update: As of February 2017, this drag queen now goes by the name GILDA WABBIT.
Beverly Leslie Sills is a drag queen with a fun bingo night at the Albatross… but she’s also much more than that. She’s an accomplished opera singer who wowed audiences as a contestant of “New York’s Next Top Drag Queen.” And now she has a bunch of other projects in the works to tell Thotyssey about, along with tales of growing up gay in Kentucky, meeting the real Beverly Leslie, and her engagement! Read all about New York’s favorite Beverly Hillbilly and true diva of the drag / opera stage!
Thotyssey: Hi Beverly! How was Pride weekend?
Beverly Leslie Sills: Pride was amazing! While I spent most of the weekend working my day job, I got to be a part of 54 Below’s Pride Cabaret. I performed with some superstars like Kim David Smith, Alice Ripley, and of course my “New York’s Next Top Drag Queen”sister Nomi Sas. It was literally a dream come true to perform on that stage. A Pride for the ages for me.
Wonderful! I was watching some of your performance videos from “New York’s Next Drag Queen,” and I was blown away by your striking voice and range. It’s always inspiring to meet young people who are keeping the classic genres alive. When did you first discover opera?
I was actually coerced into listening to opera. I grew up in a rock ‘n’ roll family, so I only heard hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. When I got to high school I discovered the world of musical theatre, and started auditioning for shows. Then a freshmen beat me out of a lead role in Anything Goes. I decided enough was enough, and I got serious about studying music and acting.
My voice teacher was a classically trained baritone, and he decided that I should sing opera. I was resistant, but he said, “Look, you like Kristen Chenoweth. Listen to Kathleen Battle. Their voices are similar. If you still hate it, come back to me.” I found a recording of her singing “Piangero” from Giulio Cesare and I was in love.
What’s your voice type, and/or octave range?
My range extends from A2, which is on the lower end of the typical male range, to C6, the upper end of many female voices, although I have never sung that in public. Voice type is harder to classify because voices shift and change dramatically for male-bodied people well into their late twenties. So, ask me again in five years? [laughs]l
I’m not sure how it works with the genre–do voice coaches try to get you to stick within a certain range or type?
In classical music, an okay teacher will tell you what your voice type is and try to teach you how to sing that way. A good teacher will teach you how to sing well first, and then you’ll discover your voice type along the way.
I’m assuming you’re a fan of Beverly Sills, the late American opera legend. How would you explain to an opera novice what was so special about her?
Oh gosh, Beverly Sills. Well, first of all, we share a birthday! Both born on the 25th of May. I think that lends itself to my special resonance with her.
But on a more universal level, she had a generous heart and constantly worked to create good in the world. I think this carries over into her artistry. She certainly had a glorious voice and impeccable musicianship, yet beyond that she fought to get to the heart of the characters she portrayed. She created empathy every time she got on stage. That made her special.
And then, of course, I’m guessing you’re also inspired by Beverly Leslie, Karen’s tiny nemesis from Will & Grace?
YES! I met Leslie Jordan in Kentucky at a benefit gala for a charity organization called Lexington Fairness. He is a wonderful, generous man. And his character on Will & Grace was hilarious!
My name came together because I have this very serious, intellectual side but I’m also a silly Southern sissy. I’m at my best when I’m embracing both facets of my personality.
So, what’s life like growing up gay and musical in Kentucky?
Not always easy. I was lucky to have a loving and supportive family, but I was well aware of what the people around me expected me to become–and it certainly wasn’t a drag queen.
While I was charming and talkative, I was often self-conscious. I hid myself in different ways. I went through a phase in middle school in which I dressed in the grungiest, most ill-fitting clothes possible so people wouldn’t look at me. All blacks and grays and camouflage. I kept trying to grow my bangs out so they would cover my face, much to my mother’s chagrin.
I also felt constant pressure to be “perfect.” I worked very hard at maintaining a high GPA, at drawing well, at being polite and well-mannered. I polished any sharp edges I had down to their flattest, so that I wouldn’t offend anyone with my presence. I’m still fighting my way back from that sanitized, boring, but pleasant version of myself.
Did you ultimately come to NYC to flee all of that?
I came to New York City to pursue opera. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how freeing it felt to not be in Kentucky. You learn a lot about yourself when you travel long distances, you know?
Absolutely! So, how did those early attempt at opera gigs go?
Great actually! I’ve worked with a lot of local companies–Bronx Opera, Utopia Opera, North Shore Music Festival–and always as the youngest kid in the room. I did five operas last year and three of them were brand new roles. I was lucky for the opportunities.
I got burnt out pretty quickly, though. I was still struggling with discovering who I was, and playing male roles was rarely satisfying. So I stopped auditioning for them for a time and focused on drag. I hope to get my vocal chops in shape to start auditioning again soon, but this time for female roles. It’s non-traditional, but I’ve always been the most successful when I’m challenging conventions.
So, did you do start doing drag specifically to experiment with female opera roles?
So, playing men didn’t interest me; it didn’t make sense. Plus, I’m so fucking effeminate. It was difficult to play real men. Caricatures I could do–I was a great Gaston. But I wanted to be the lead, and I couldn’t do that playing men.
Would you say that Bev is a character, or is she basically you?
She’s better than me! She’s a magnification of some of my best and worst traits. And all of that manifests as this slightly older woman with a taste for dirty jokes and classic music. She’s what I imagine the women in my family were like before I was born.
Where did she make her performing debut?
At the West End, with Brita Filter and Terra Hyman. There was supposed to be an amateur drag competition, but when it fell through I asked Brita [if I could] perform anyway. Thank goodness she said yes!
I’d been puttering around, going to shows and performing at Star Search and Knockout Tuesdays, but nothing had really taken off. I was co-hosting a once monthly variety show at Albatross Bar and we brought on a comedian named Rachel Joan who worked at the Metropolitan Room. She liked what I did, and pointed me in the direction of the competition. I was a singer and had always loved cabaret work, so it seemed like the right direction to take myself in.
How did you enjoy the experience of “NYNTDQ” overall?
The competition itself taught me so much about drag. The judges were not always easy on me, so I learned about picking the right material, pushing my concepts all the way, and adapting to an audience while staying true to myself.
It was also my first real introduction to drag queens on a personal level. I wasn’t just fan-girling at Sutton Lee Seymour, I was talking to these girls every day for over a month. Most of us became close friends. Hell, Gina Tonic is the best friend I’ve made since coming to New York City.
As someone with a big voice, was it difficult to adapt to the single piano cabaret intimacy of the Metropolitan Room?
Not at all! One of my greatest passions in undegrad was doing recitals–solo concerts which were usually accompanied only by piano. And while many recitalists don’t speak between sets, I always had something to say to the audience. Moving into cabaret made sense.
I see you’re returning to the Metropolitan Room on July 6th for a live Match Game! Can you tell us about that?
Absolutely! Joseph Macchia, the producer of” NYNTDQ,” and I have been trying to find a way to work together again. We were tossing around ideas, and he mentioned doing a live version of the Match Game. I knew the show and thought it was a brilliant idea. RuPaul already parodies it to much success, so why not try doing it for real?
Our first show at the Metropolitan Room is July 6th at 9:30pm. I’m hosting, and we have a hilarious panel of nightlife and theatre personalities, live performances, plus an exciting cash prize for the contestant who wins!
Sounds fun. Is it gonna be weekly, monthly…?
We’re going to see how it plays and then move from there. But right now the plan is monthly with rotating hosts. If I’m not hosting, I plan to be right there on the panel cutting up with the rest of them. For reservations and more info, you can check out the Metropolitan Room website or call 212.206.0440.
What’s your take on performing modern pop music in your drag sets? Do you hate it? Do you sing it, or only lip sync?
Working in bars, I think modern pop is a necessity–you’ve got a varied crowd so you have to mix things up. I don’t sing pop particularly well, so it’s usually in a lip sync, and it’s usually a comedic mix. I built a mix for Albatross Bar on Adele’s “Hello” that kills every time. Marti Gould Cummings read me once because it’s almost five minutes long, but I spend that five minutes raking in dollar bills!
I also have a plan to reinterpret some pop songs as arias though, so be on the lookout for that to hit YouTube.
Tell me about your early involvement with Albatross. I see that before you became their resident bingo queen, you were (and are) doing some live variety shows with them. How did that come about?
I live about six blocks from Albatross, so it had become a regular hang out spot for me well before I started performing in drag. A comedian friend, Katie Boyle, approached me about hosting a variety show, and Albatross was the first venue we approached. [Albatross owner] Nathan was willing to give us a chance, so we started doing once monthly shows as the Gaylic Queens.
The lesson I learned there was to always ask if you want something. The worst someone can say is, “No.”
Do you know when the next installment of that show will be there?
July 21st is our next show! Each one is themed, so our July show is “A Gay Wedding” in honor of my recent engagement. Then August 18th we’ll be presenting “Mysteries and Scandals” so be prepared for homages to Diana, Marilyn, and Amy!
Congratulations on your engagement! When’s the big day?
Thank you! We’re looking at October 2017. On a drag budget, you need time to save.
Now you’re hosting weekly bingo at Albatross on Monday nights. How’s that experience treating you so far? I always imagined it was tough to balance keeping the game moving and keeping the show interesting.
I’d never hosted bingo before, so it was tricky. I would chat my audience up after the game show and at first, everyone just wanted it to be longer. So I’ve built a whole show–ten numbers plus patter–into the night, as well as drinking games, toasts, and smoke breaks. As for keeping the actual game interesting and quick, that comes down to the audience. If they bring good energy and wanna get competitive with each other, it’s a blast. If they act like announcers for the PGA Tour it’s gonna be a drag. Luckily, the crowd we’ve got coming is raucous and silly. I love ‘em!
Sounds fun! what else is on the horizons for you?
Right now I’m in talks with Joseph Macchia about doing a drag brunch with Gina Tonic at the Metropolitan Room. I’ve also been approached by John Austin Clark of Bourbon Baroque about doing a comedic recital with a soprano friend of his, which I would be thrilled to do. Beyond that, I’m also working on a YouTube platform–what kind of content to create, when to release it, who my audience there would be. I’m working hard to keep everyone entertained!
Sounds like you have a lot going on! Keep us in the loop! So last question: I read a Times article about the Metropolitan Opera House’s ticket slump, and the writer urged the Met (and, I guess, opera houses in general) to start finding ways to recruit younger audiences. Do you think that’s possible, in this era of short attention spans, long work hours, ticket price, etc?
100%. Opera is visceral and exciting, the music is gorgeous. You see how people react to it on shows like America’s Got Talent. A whole audience is in tears half way through Laura Breton’s first phrase!
I think we have to make it more accessible. Perform it in English, embrace non-classical singers doing classical songs, be unafraid to cut parts of long operas that are unnecessary to the plot. Fear holds the opera industry back. The big houses cling to time-honored traditions, but the successful companies are the smaller groups doing innovative work.
And I’m doing my own part bringing it to bars. Drag and opera are so similar, it’s meant to be. Just ask Ira Siff!
Wonderful, that’s very hopeful! Thanks Beverly!
Beverly Leslie Sills hosts Broke Ass Bingo at Albatross Bar Monday nights at 9pm. She also performs a monthly live variety show at Albatross with the Gaylic Queens, the next installments being July 21st and August 18th. At the Metropolitan Room, she’ll also host the What The ______ panel game show on July 6th. Beverly can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
See also: Gilda Wabbit (3.20.2017)