Lisa Thompson: Opera, classical by day; Bob and Barbara’s by night
by Suzi Nash, Philadelphia Gay News 2011
“The most important political step that any gay man or lesbian can take is to come out of the closet. It’s been proven that it is easier to hate us and to fear us if you can’t see us.”
— Amanda Bearse, actress
PGN: So Ms. Thompson, where are you from?
LT: I’m originally from Stamford, Conn., and came here to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts, where I majored in voice and opera. I got my degree and started working for the city doing after-school music programs during the school year and at Penn in the summers. We do musicals and programs there. In my off time — my fun time — I host the show at Bob and Barbara’s. I’ve been doing it there for over 18 years.
PGN: Where do the kids you teach come from?
LT: They come from all over the city. They have to audition to participate in the summer program. During the school year, I go to different recreation centers to teach and I also teach private voice lessons.
PGN: Tell me about a particular kid who really struck you.
LT: I had one student, LaChanze Sapp, who won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in “The Color Purple” and was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in “Once on This Island.” Sadly, she lost her first husband on 9/11 when she was eight-months’ pregnant. He worked for a financial-services firm located in Tower One of the World Trade Center. She was primarily a dancer, but wanted to take voice with me. I knew she was special right away: She had the drive you need to make it in the business. But I’ve been lucky; so many of the kids are really talented, really gifted. A lot of them have gone on to get degrees in music and then have returned to teach in the program.
PGN: That must be rewarding.
LT: Oh yes, it’s nice to see it come full circle. I have a girl right now who’s really gifted: I think she’s going to be a big star. It’s exciting to see them succeed.
PGN: Do you watch “Glee”?
LT: I watch it a bit, but I’m really more about classical music. Though you can tell that some of the kids have had classical training. I just hope that kids watching it realize how much goes into what they do — understand that there’s a lot of training and hard work that went on before. Kids just don’t jump up out of the blue and perform like that. Actually, they’re not even kids, they’re adults playing kids.
PGN: I know. I bartend for a friend on weekends and I recently carded this girl who looked slightly familiar. She was 25 and seemed a little surprised that I carded her: Turned out it was the woman who plays Tina on “Glee.” Speaking of which, the last episode was about a girl trying out for the choir who was really awful but thought she was great. Have you dealt with that?
LT: As a teacher, you really have to be careful. You work with them and encourage them and, you’d be surprised — sometimes those are the students who work the hardest and do well. It’s not always the best voice that gets the role.
PGN: Like Rex Harrison who was famous for talk/singing his songs.
LT: Yes, or like [opera singer] Maria Callas. She actually didn’t have the best voice but she was a great actress and was able to bring the song across.
PGN: I know of African-American involvement in opera because of the late Malcolm Poindexter, who was involved with Opera Ebony/Philadelphia, but a lot of people don’t associate black people with opera.
LT: Yes, there are a lot of us in the classical arts, but I think that people want to highlight certain factions of the community and not others. I don’t like to get into the political aspects: I just teach and hope that people will open their eyes and accept people based on talent, whether it’s classical music, dancing or whatever. I believe it’ll work out. I believe we need to move beyond black, white, whatever, and just all have the opportunity to sing.
PGN: So tell me a little about yourself.
LT: I was brought up in Stamford, Conn., and I was always very shy. But my parents always taught me to be myself. They were very strong proponents of education. They believed you needed a strong educational foundation to advance to the degree that you wanted to. You can’t fool parents: They knew I was gay from a young age and, when I became a transsexual, they were very supportive. They were more concerned about how I would be accepted by society. But, you know, you’re going to have your negative and positive people in life no matter what you do, so I just brush it off. I just feel it’s my life and I have to live according to my own rules.
PGN: What did they do for a living?
LT: My mom was a kindergarten teacher and my father was not in construction, but in the building field.
PGN: Any siblings?
LT: Yes, there are five of us. I’m the oldest.
PGN: Were you the caretaker?
LT: No, we’re a very close-knit family and I think we all take care of each other. We never had any fighting amongst ourselves. Our parents were really good role models and taught us how to deal with each other.
PGN: What’s a good family memory?
LT: When we had our first family reunion. Everybody got together and it was great. We got to meet some cousins and family members we hadn’t met yet and reunite with others we hadn’t seen in a while. We talked and laughed and ate! It was great.
PGN: What was your favorite class in school?
LT: [Laughs.] Music, of course!
PGN: Do you remember your first solo?
LT: I was in elementary school and my music teacher heard me singing and invited me to sing in the Christmas concert. I still remember the song: “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”
PGN: What was the first record you ever bought?
LT: Diana Ross, the record with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on it. I just love her — well, I guess every gay person does — and Patti LaBelle. But I was also into Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
PGN: Outside of opera, what’s a favorite type of music?
LT: Oh, I like Broadway musicals. And contemporary music too. Really all types, because I have students of all types that I have to teach and they don’t all do opera, so I have to be versatile.
PGN: Any stage blunders?
LT: Not really, opera’s pretty disciplined. You really rehearse all the kinks out. The worst mishap was probably someone coming in to the song at the wrong time.
PGN: Do you speak any other languages?
LT: Not fluently, but we had to take classes in all different languages so we could sing the parts authentically.
PGN: What’s the hardest language to sing in?
LT: German! Without a doubt, it’s very guttural. Italian and French are the prettiest. I may get in trouble for saying that!
PGN: OK, I’ll get you in more trouble: What’s your favorite opera?
LT: “La Bohème.” I like arias from a number of operas, but I’ll admit to “La Bohème” being my favorite overall.
PGN: So how did you transition from school to teaching?
LT: When I was in school, I used to sing at St. John’s, for about 15 years in fact, and I told my music history teacher there that I was looking for a job. She got in touch with a friend in the recreation department and they hired me to work for the city. I’ve been there ever since.
PGN: And how did you come to do the shows at Bob and Barbara’s?
LT: Back in the early ’90s, I used to do shows at the Cartwheel in New Hope. Bob and Barbara’s had been doing shows for two years, but they really didn’t want to do shows with “trannies.” I think they felt we’d attract a different crowd of people. There was a girl I knew who did their shows and had to cancel and asked me to step in. She told me that she’d explained the type of person I was to the owner and that it was cool. Bob and Barbara’s was a straight bar and they had mostly cross-dressers performing, not transsexuals. But once I came, they saw I was just there to do a professional show. As it happened, the person that was hosting the show left and the owner asked me to run the shows for him. I said yes, but told him that I had specific rules that we had to abide by. I didn’t want to have the same people there week after week: I wanted to keep it fresh. That was back in 1993 and I’m still doing it.
PGN: So why was it OK for cross-dressers to perform but not transsexuals?
LT: Well, it’s sad but, like everybody does from time to time, sometimes transsexuals get stereotyped. People think of cross-dressers as drag performers, but will think of “trannies” in conjunction with sex workers. They don’t think of us being educated or having normal jobs and families. It’s changing, though.
PGN: You’ve worked with so many acts — tell me someone who really blew you away.
LT: There’s a girl in New York named Victoria Lace. She’s amazing. A former Miss Gay PA and Miss Paradise 2010 and she can really dance.
PGN: What changes have you noticed since you started?
LT: A lot of straight people seem to be much more comfortable coming to the shows. It’s now recognized as entertainment. They don’t worry that they’ll be hit on or harassed, because I don’t believe you have to insult your audience to do a show. I treat it as a business. I don’t play favorites: When it comes time to bringing someone up from the audience, everyone has a chance, not just my friends.
PGN: For someone who’s never been, what can one expect?
LT: Oh, you just have to experience it for yourself. People are always telling me it was so much more than they expected. I guarantee you’ll have a good time.
PGN: I know Andrea LaMour sings live as part of her act: Do you sing or lip-synch?
LT: She’s another fabulous performer — we go way back. She’s in our show. I call her the pageant girl that steals the crown, because all she has to do is sing and she’ll steal any crown! For me, I lip-synch. My classical singing and my show are two different things and I keep them separate.
PGN: So you and your girls are doing a show for OutFest. Who will we see on stage?
LT: Tina Montgomery, Miss Bob and Barbara; Lady Marissa, Miss Philadelphia; Mimi, a close friend of mine who also does dresses; Miss Morgan Wells; Foressa from Tavern, and I’ll be hosting.
PGN: You’ve been doing the Pride events for years; what prompted you to volunteer?
LT: Well, they asked me years ago and I was happy to participate. I try to do nonprofit work when I can. I think it’s fun and it’s also a good way to show people in the community what we do. There are different types of drag: some are more campy and some like us more focused on the performances.
PGN: So you’re involved in the community. Are you involved with anyone special?
LT: Yes, I’ve been in a relationship for over 17 years.
PGN: How did you meet?
LT: It’s so funny. I remember it was a Saturday night and I was walking to Woody’s. This person saw me and started talking to me on the street. At first I didn’t want to be bothered because I think he was one of those … what I call trannie-chasers. But he was very respectful and we exchanged numbers and he called me and we started talking regularly and from there the relationship just blossomed.
PGN: What does he do?
LT: He’s into real estate, but he’s also a musician. He’s a bass player.
PGN: What’s something fun you do?
LT: Mardi Gras every year!
PGN: Random questions. What historical event do you wish you could have attended?
LT: The Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech. That would have been incredible.
PGN: Which punctuation mark describes your personality?
LT: A question mark. I’m always curious about things. Mostly people. I like people.
PGN: Any pets?
LT: I have a little teacup Pomeranian named Taylor. She runs the house!
PGN: If you could do a duet with anyone, who would you choose?
LT: Whitney Houston — I love her. No wait, I want to change that to Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer. Oh my God, her voice just does something to me, no one has a voice like her — it puts me in a trance.
PGN: Ever participate in any sports?
LT: Oh no! I’m not a sports person. I tried to play some baseball as a kid, but no.
PGN: So what’s your hidden talent?
LT: I’m a pretty good dancer. As a matter of fact, I’m a good dancer! If I couldn’t sing I’d want to be a dancer. And I’m a pretty good cook. [Laughs.] But I don’t let anyone know that ’cause then they’ll want you to feed them all the time!
PGN: A magical moment from your childhood?
LT: When I got a little portable typewriter. I always wanted one. I was so happy, it had stiff buttons and everything, but I still loved it.
PGN: Celebrity encounter?
LT: I worked at the Merriam Theater for a while so I met a lot of people: Tyler Perry, Vivica Fox, Patti LaBelle, etc. But through opera, I got to meet Pavarotti, which was really inspiring.
PGN: Worst job?
LT: I worked for a summer job program and they wanted us to clean streets with a little brush. I lasted two days. It was horrible!
PGN: Something you lost that you wish you could get back?
LT: [Laughs.] My shoes! I left a bag of shoes in a cab a few weeks ago. It sounds terrible, but they were my shoes and they were beautiful!
PGN: Last good book you read?
LT: “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. It was fascinating. I like reading things that give me insight into different worlds, the culture and how they live.
PGN: Any phobias?
LT: I cannot walk across a bridge. I panic. It seems like the bridge is pulling me into the water. It’s horrible.
PGN: What was your favorite thing to pretend when you were little?
LT: While my brothers and sisters were all outside playing, I was always inside walking around in my mother’s heels and pretending I was on stage. Now I’m doing it for real!