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Photo courtesy Calgary Fringe Festival

Calgary Fringe Festival 2021: Steven Morton on drag, performing and finding your passion

By Rachneet Randhawa, August 27 2021—

Did you know that in theatre the term “drag” is known to have originated from when men played female roles in theoretical performances? They would express how their costume dresses would “drag” across the floor. Later, drag as a form of entertainment gained prominence when female impersonation or “vaudeville” was brought into American culture in the early 20th century and combined comedy, music, dance and burlesque. 

Today of course, drag queens have become an immensely popular form of both entertainment and performance art. Enter stage right, Steven Morton, or Aida Cupcake, from Drag Me to the Opera, which premiered earlier this month at the Calgary Fringe Festival 2021.

Steven Morton is recognized as a generous and dynamic performer with a bright and dreamy, lyric tenor voice. His stagecraft and musical prowess has been developed through numerous roles on and off the stage, in addition to choral work, including three years as the director of Fresh Blend a cappella. 

Morton currently works as a music specialist with children at Calgary Arts Academy, performs as a church soloist, teaches privately and can be seen on stage with a variety of theatre companies. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview to learn more about all things drag.

The Aida Cupcake character and their drag persona were created specifically for the show. In Morton’s perspective, a drag performance is defined as an “artistic expression of gender.” He goes on to emphasize that his version of performing for drag is obviously and unusually different from conventional drag performances because of that theatre aspect. 

“I do live my own life singing — lots of drag queens do that though. Lots of drag queens sing live. But I don’t think many do a one-man operatic show,” he says.

For the technique behind the play, Morton explains the vocal range he chose for this performance specifically. 

“I sing soprano arias, and I sing them down the octave in my range as a tenor,” says Morton. “But I decided to perform them in drag so that it could still be a female character, singing the arias.” 

In coming up with the idea for the play, Morton mentioned it was suggested to him by a vocal coach who nudged him to study soprano arias. From there, the idea began to emerge to write and perform a play on the tenor arts. For those of you unfamiliar with opera vocab, “tenor” is the male singer, usually the one with the highest voice range. 

“Generally speaking when you’re studying voice, you either have a voice that sits high or a voice that sits low,” he says. “For the female voice, soprano, and mezzo-soprano is the high and low. And for the male voice, it’s tenor and baritone. So Sopranos and tenors are both high voices.” 

Of the various operettas or song sequences for the play, Morton says that there was no specific approach he took when brainstorming which ones to include, but rather he chose ones that he had been learning in his vocal lessons and enjoyed or ones that he felt fit into the story. He did all the English translations of the songs himself and focused on operatic highlights and high notes. 

The Queen of the Night — that’s just an amazing soprano aria. It’s very, very high,” says Morton. “So I had to transpose it down a whole tone. But it’s still extremely high and extremely exciting. So that was one that I just wanted to do because it’s fun, and was kind of like vocal fireworks.” 

The most challenging aspect of doing rehearsals and the performances was having to memorize an entire one-man show — an hour’s worth of music and script — as Morton had never done that before. One of the operetta songs he is most proud of includes the Romeo And Juliet aria because he was able to accomplish a literal translation of the original French while retaining the rhymes the original poet had written. 

Aside from his friend, Magaret Dahlberg, who recorded the piano music channel tracks for him, he mentioned that it was entirely self-directed. He did all the staging and direction of the show including the set design, and costumes were constructed by him including the boldly colourful and stylish wigs which transitioned his scenes.

He mentioned that he was grateful for his support from the Calgary Arts Academy who allowed him to use the music room to rehearse the show in off-peak hours during summer. It allowed him to work out all of the staging and movement and own the space without feeling too restricted. 

He also did three different preview performances for his colleagues via Zoom including for his voice teacher, music and theatre friends and fellow teachers which honed and bolstered his confidence for the actual in-person live performance at the Fringe Festival. 

But what inspired Morton to pursue singing and theatre as a career in the first place was similar to the theme in his play of finding your authentic inner voice. 

“I’ve always been drawn to music,” says Morton. “And, there were a number of influential people along the way, who encouraged me, and who pointed out my aptitude and my talent for music. It’s difficult, you know, a lot of times we think that we should study something practical. But sometimes you just eventually get that one push that points you in the direction of pursuing the art form.” 

Similar to the theme of his monologue of uncovering your true potential, Morton claimed that having mentors that specialized in vocal coaching and offered him constant guidance set his path in a newfound direction. 

“Even though you need to be able to encourage yourself and have your own grit every now and then, I do think we all need a champion,” says Morton. “We need someone who is going to encourage us and you know, help us to get back up and to remind us of our goals.” 

Morton mentions that resilience is a key ability or personal quality he believes contributes most to success as an actor and singer in theatre. But reaching for the stars cannot be done without curiosity.

“If you’re curious about doing theatre, look up some of the theatre companies in Calgary and go audition. Or if you’re curious about taking voice lessons, find a voice teacher, talk to your friends, talk about what you’re curious about.

As a voice teacher himself, Morton recommends testing the waters to improve your vocal ability by taking lessons and if you’re interested in learning more about theatre, Storybook Theatre and Morpheus Theatre in Calgary are great places to check out. 

For the next steps, Morton hopes to sign off the summer by doing a drag show for kids via the Arts Commons and their arts expedition series which takes arts out to Calgary and surrounding communities by putting on performances in inner-city parks or fields of nearby schools. It’s a family-friendly event in which families can participate too. He’s also making an appearance at the Pride Festival on Sept. 4.

Moving forward, Morton hopes that he can bring Drag me to the Opera to other Fringe Festivals nationally and internationally and mentions that a sequel may be in the works.

Although the Fringe Festival has come and gone we definitely recommend checking out Steven Morton’s work through his website and following him on Instagram @musicalsteven. If you’ve never been a fan or are unfamiliar with both opera and drag, we ask that you try to keep a fabulously open mind and try something new.

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