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