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Arias and Punch Lines

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hefty soprano who incurred the creative wrath of the stage crew; a proposed Clint Eastwood opera movie--"Die, Fledermaus!”; the plot to “La Boheme,” tabloid style--"Seamstress Coughs to Death Before Horrified Onlookers.”

These irreverent comic bits are part of B.J. Ward’s loving lampoon “Stand-Up Opera,” playing Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

You and your kids probably know Ward’s voice. She’s made a living with it on TV for years--Betty Rubble of “The Flintstones” is one of her many cartoon personas. But this musical stage actor, voice-over artist and alumna of the notable Groundling comedy improv troupe is also a classically trained soprano. And she’s been earning glowing reviews since she began touring nationally a few years ago with her solo combination of straight arias, humorous anecdotes, clever quips and a mildly risque joke or two aimed at opera lovers, haters and novices.

“I had always made a living with my voice,” Ward said, “and I just got tired of doing assignment singing: ‘Can you sound like a singing bird for Disney, can you sound like an inanimate object, a vacuum cleaner or something?’ I got bored with music and myself.”

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Ward, who had studied opera as a teenager in Delaware before going into professional music theater and voice-overs, went back to a voice teacher who suggested opera as an antidote to her boredom. Out of that grew monthly concerts for friends and their children at her San Fernando Valley home. The casual concerts soon turned into a full-length, touring theater piece.

“I got interested in the great stories of opera,” she said, “and of course the music was beautiful, and then I began to see the humor in it. I thought, this is really strange--most of the women die. And there aren’t a lot of operatic mothers, either.” (It was Puccini, Ward says in her show, who “helped elevate the dying diva to an art form.”)

Ward uses her offbeat humor to demystify and make accessible a world that often seems intimidating and “fancy-shmancy,” even wearing pants and sneakers “so I can fall down and move around and sit on the piano” before coming out in the latter part of her show in her “diva dress.”

But make no mistake, Ward is a true opera lover and she doesn’t take liberties with the music. When she segues from jokes to arias by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and other heavyweight composers, she sings straight, relying on the audience to go along for the ride.

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“I’m not kidding about the music,” Ward said. “I just give myself a few seconds going from the last laugh into really settling myself down so that I can sing. I wasn’t sure when I started how [the audience] would make that transition,” she added, “but they do.”

Although critics have praised Ward’s elegance and well-trained soprano singing voice as well as her comic talents, Ward is modest about her vocal skills.

“When I started, I was listening to the great singers--Callas, Tebaldi--and it was so intimidating because I thought what makes me think I should be singing this stuff when it’s been done perfectly? But then you have to find what it is you have to give,” she said. “I think maybe what I do is make opera acceptable for people who don’t think they like it. I say show up and think you are going to have a couple of laughs and maybe discover there’s something else in there for you.”

When you go to an opera, Ward said, “you’re not going to understand all of it maybe, but it’s that primal sound and primal passion and I think people can understand that at a real gut level.”

Besides, “there’s a certain amount of vocal bungee-jumping involved,” Ward said. “You go hoping they’ll hit the notes, but anything can happen. I find that the fun part.”

Ward encourages families to use her show to introduce older children and teenagers to opera, too.

“It’s always fun for me to see kids out there. I’ve had people bring 6-year-olds and they’ve seemed to like it, especially the real physical things. One little girl at a recent show came backstage afterward and told me, ‘You said you had your first operatic experience when you were 14. Well, I just had mine.’ ”

* “Stand-Up Opera,” Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, Saturday, 8 p.m. $17.50-$22.50; (800) 233-3123.

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More Music: The All-American Boys Chorus, a 65-voice ensemble whose members’ ages are 9 to 14 and have toured throughout North America, Europe and Asia, will perform its “By Request! Concert” at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday. The concert will feature “Best of Broadway” selections, tunes from the ‘20s, big-band selections, and a patriotic tribute highlighting the music of George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa.

* “The All-American Boys Chorus--By Request!,” Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Sunday, 4 p.m. $20-$25. (714) 708-1670, (714) 854-4646.


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