Dishing with Dennis and Cat, Part 1

I still plan to finish the Divas in Drag Series, but for the next month or so, I’m offering a light summer diversion …

Dennis Milam Bensie and I were introduced through my boyfriend’s daughter, who is a costume designer, seamstress and dresser. Dennis’s specialty is wigs, but he is a multi-talented guy who has also been on the other side of the footlights, which you would know if you’d read Shorn: Toys to Men, an unusual (and fabulous) memoir about growing up gay in the Midwest.

Dennis loved playing the flamboyant characters on stage and got a lot of approval for those roles; then he was cast as a soldier, the part of Fyedka in Fiddler on the Roof and was told by the director, “I need you to walk more like a man.” Although he did as he was told and was praised for his performance, he ultimately decided that he’d rather be working behind the scenes.

Here is Part I of a conversation that took place on the first day of summer, June 21, 2011. We taped it, and Dennis later made a transcript. I’ll be posting it in several segments. We decided to let it play out with a minimum of editing. I’ll also be inserting notes about things that occur to me as I go through the transcript.


(Two Seattle authors, both with backgrounds in performing arts, meet on the patio on a beautiful sunny morning to
dish about life, art, publishing, and “life upon the wicked stage.”)

[That’s a quote from the musical Showboat, BTW: “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes …”]

D- I took voice lessons in college. I learned a lot. I did it for one quarter. I had a crush on someone in the music
C- Uh-huh
D- So it was kinda for weird reasons. I remember my final was singing “O Isis und Osiris” from The Magic Flute.
C- The bass one?
D- Yes.
C- I donʼt know Magic Flute well enough. Whenever there is an opera that doesnʼt have a role for me, I donʼt
get to know it as well.
(They laugh)
C- Magic Flute I know better, just because it is a famous Opera. I have seen so many versions of it…

[CAT note: plus some memorably bad student and amateur productions! There are several scenes that are frequently butchered in opera workshops, especially those featuring the three ladies, who mostly sing in three-part harmony. Lots of female voice students out there, and they aren’t necessarily ready to perform solo. Oh, and during this conversation I had suppressed the memory of singing one of the three spirits at the tiny and now defunct Amato Opera in New York. They put us in short togas and wigs that made me look like contestants in an Andy Warhol lookalike contest. I wish I had a photo to show Dennis!]

C- But I wouldnʼt be able to tell you about the arias the way I can when there is a role for me in it.

[CAT note: … Except for one of the spirits (usually played by boys) and either the 2nd or 3rd Lady. And then there are the arias that I have worked on with students—which doesn’t make me want to listen to them for enjoyment. I also sang “Ach ich fuhls” as a young soprano (only 18), which must have been dreadful. I have a few cassettes I saved of voice lessons from that era and they are quite cringe-worthy.]

D- I took voice, and was in a jazz ensemble for a year. I didnʼt think I could sing. But with the voice lessons I realized, “I can sing.” I always assumed I was a tenor, then learned that vocally I was a bass. I figured out what my voice could do and what it couldnʼt.

[CAT note: It’s not that unusual to assume that you’re one voice type then turn out to be the exact opposite. Although speaking voices are usually a pretty good indication. When you’re an opera singer, you want to speak in the same range and with the same resonance and support as when you are singing, because it’s far less stressful on the vocal cords and you are basically always warmed up. You hear an awful lot of opera singers—especially men—who love to hear themselves speak. And they can sound pretty hokey to outsiders.]

I know this excerpt is on the short side, but the subject changed so completely that I thought we should stop here for now. The conversation shifted to the new book Dennis is writing, Always a Bride Doll but Never a Bride, which is quite topical, considering the latest vote to allow gay marriage in New York.

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