The Operatic Rise and Fall of Paula Deen, Through the Eyes of an African-American Soprano

Our contributor talks to an Atlanta-based opera singer who played Deen in a performance called "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens"
Lyons portrayed Deen in a live performance.

Everyone from nervous corporate sponsors like Target, Walmart, and Sears to best-selling author Anne Rice to oddly supportive African-American Republican actress Stacey Dash is chiming in this month to offer their two cents on Southern food empress Paula Deen’s admission to using racial slurs and the self-demise that has followed. It’s the theatrical headline-grabbing story of a powerful, beloved woman who built her Food Network fame, restaurant chains, and kitchenware lines on a greasy spoon approach to life. She came out last year as diabetic and now this month as a racist, and it’s all leaving diners and TV fans in shock and confusion.

Last year, soprano Christine Danielle Lyons was honored to portray Paula Deen in the Atlanta Opera Company’s 24-Hour Opera Project "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens" and later productions in other major cities. The performance is the brainchild of Jennifer Jolley, who composed the music, and collaborated with Vynnie Meli, who contributed lyrics like "This little slice of heaven would be better with butter." The audience loved its unexpected star, Christine Danielle Lyons, a young African-American performer who hails from Atlanta and Deen’s hometown of Savannah, Ga.

"They say imitation is the highest form of flattery," Lyons reminds, although her tune has now changed after Deen’s recent admission to using racial epithets at her Savannah restaurant, The Lady and Sons.

The operatic comedy, which received generous press and took home both the Judge’s Choice Award and the Audience Choice Award, tells the lighthearted story of two angels who won’t let Paula Deen into heaven…. because of her infamous love of butter, bacon, American cheese, and Krispy Kremes. Yet unlike many operas that end in tragedy (think Verdi’s "La Traviata"), "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens" finishes on a high note with Lyons’ "Butter Aria" winning over the angels, who ultimately slather their faces in her buttery batter and let her past the golden gates.

"Lyons doesn’t have to be asked twice to make like opera’s greatest temptress," wrote one journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"I wouldn’t call opera an unexpected platform for someone as theatrical as Paula Deen. When you think about opera you think about everything being 120 percent, right? You think about over-the-top voices, over-the-top staging, over-the-top costumes. It makes perfect sense for this story to be an opera," Lyons explains.

"We debuted the show in Atlanta, so I’m sure there are a lot of people there that also felt how I did: we get Paula Deen and we support her. It is an acknowledgment to her success," Lyons says, referencing the fact that the first show coincided with Deen’s controversial confession to having diabetes.

While casting a young black Paula Deen may have been an initial surprise, Michael Nutter, the director, downplayed the visual contrast, emphasizing Lyons’ vocal and dramatic triumph in the role. And, it wasn’t hard to play the part, says Lyons. "I have plenty of examples of those people like Paula Deen in my actual life…. My grandmother was like, 'Would you like some grits with that butter?' It was like a mountain of butter went into that or it wasn’t edible to her," she says.

"The point was not to create controversy but to comment on a current cultural situation that we all understood and need to comment on — and she did reign in the end. That means we all love her. Come on, being from the South I just love Paula Deen," says Lyons, an admitted food lover.

Here, Lyons corrects herself, "Well, I did love her."

"I think at the end of the day, Paula tapped into some sort of psychological sweet spot from a Southern person, which is why her food and her personality have become so successful and such a household name. But the country is moving away from that and getting healthier and it’s not going to help her to also be openly racist," Lyons notes.

The singer says, "Growing up in the South, a lot of people use slurs like that still to this day. It’s not like Paula Deen is the only one that says the 'N' word. She just admitted it and she’s in a position of power so that puts her in a position to be crucified, if you will."

Lyons adds that it’s embarrassing to quite literally "be the poster girl for racial discomforts" since the Atlanta Opera 24-Hour Opera selected an image of Lyons yielding a rolling pin as Paula Deen as their banner head after the show’s success.

"I feel strange that my face is still plastered all over there as Paula Deen now. I went to Baltimore and a girl asked me, 'Wait, were you Paula Deen in an opera?' So it’s embarrassing because how do I reconcile that first with myself and then with the Southern community that I’m from?"

For that matter, it’s important to acknowledge the Lyons’ family’s strong history in Savannah, dating back to her great-grandparents.

"We have deep roots, culturally, in the civil rights movement. During those tumultuous times my grandfather was one of the people participating in that movement and he was a real estate agent in Savannah, one of the first African-American real estate agents on the Real Estate Board of Georgia. He helped a lot of African-Americans at the time who could not get loans for their houses, get loans and some are still living in those same houses in Savannah to this day," she says proudly. Later, her father was the first African-American to integrate his public Savannah high school.

She says her acclaimed performance in "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens" all feels like a backward step today after realizing she had unintentionally glamorized someone who many now believe has been exposed as a racist.

"My first three roles out of school were a colored girl, a slave, and a negro, in that order, which caused me to leave the musical theatre world in the first place because that’s not my higher purpose in life and that’s not why I have a B.F.A. in music from Carnegie Mellon University," she asserts.

"Paula Deen has apologized a couple of times, so I know that she’s apparently sorry. I’m sure she knows better and I’m sure she chose to do what she did because socially, it was OK. But for me as an artist, it’s not OK…. I tried to actually get away from these racial issues, but now it’s like I don’t have a choice but to speak about it… She’s just made it so that I haven’t even broken out of that mold yet. I’m still portraying negative stereotypes of racist people."

"We all vote with our money," Lyons points out, "and if we continue to pay for Paula Deen’s cooking or recipes, we’re basically telling her that we condone her behavior. I would say that with anyone — whether it’s a politician, an artist, a Food Network star, you choose to support them with your dollars because we live in America and this is a capitalistic country. That’s how we make a difference here."

Lyons grins and adds that in lieu of Deen’s bad publicity "People are asking if there’s going to be an Act II and there might just have to be. Who knows if there’ll be a sequel to the Paula Deen saga, but would I do the sequel since I originated the role? Yes, maybe if there was an apology scene," she smirks.

If Paula Deen sent Lyons free pecan pies for life would it alleviate her personal embarrassment?

"Hell no! Are you kidding me? I know people that can make a pecan pie just like Paula Deen. They go to my mother’s church," Lyons smiles.

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