Le Gateau Chocolat goes beyond drag

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2014
Le Gateau Chocolat
LE GATEAU CHOCOLAT: Bearded, boa-feathered and prone to skin-tight Lycra.

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A dial tone. Four rings. A pause. Mannered, measured and baritone-deep: "Hello."

What to call him? How to address the lawyer turned drag artist with the obligatory over-the-top stage name?

"Gateau," he says, "is great." And the smile comes all the way down the phone line. Sometimes he'll be met at an airport by a driver holding a sign that says "Mr Chocolat". Fellow passenger reaction? "It's very funny."

Le Gateau Chocolat - bearded, boa-feathered and prone to skin-tight Lycra. He's sung for the Queen, performed at the Sydney Opera House and the Glyndebourne Opera. Boy George is a fan and a friend. Next week, he performs in the Auckland International Cabaret Season.

"I always go in with the understanding that it might be an exercise in being lost in translation," says Gateau. "There was a festival I booked for Poland, and my first thought was this is not going to work. But it's one of the best I've done.

"My job is to go beyond the drag immediately. To go beyond the obvious, to subvert the expected."

This, he says, is the most talking he's done in daylight this week. Straight after this interview, he's going back to bed. The instrument - that voice - needs rest.

Gateau is midway through a season at London's Soho Theatre. His show, Black, is more theatrical than the work he's bringing to Auckland. An autobiographical exploration of the feeling of being black. A feeling, argues Gateau, that anybody can relate to.

"That's absolutely the point. At some time in your life, you would have felt black; you would have been black. And that ranges from someone who has depression, or being someone who has been excluded for whatever reason, or feels like an outsider, or they haven't met the expectations their parents put on them, or someone who is single and still striving to find a partner.

"From black sheep, to black dog, to black performer, to black music, to black and blue - so even though it's deeply personal, the universal themes would have been something you would have experienced at some point."

Nigerian-born and UK-based he trades in the labels he's collected: Gay, overweight, depressed. But at the June 4-8 Auckland festival (which features seven acts, including local performers Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Julia Deans, and internationals like Michael Griffiths and Lady Rizo) he says audiences will see a "softer" show.

"If we approach it like a chocolate box, it gives you a taste of the different flavours that I am. Black focuses more heavily on the dark side."

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Gateau says he came to singing by mistake. He originally studied law. As he told the Guardian two years ago, "I went to a cabaret night in Brighton called Dynamite Boogaloo, became a punter, then a regular, then a door person and eventually I was singing on stage . . . Now I spend my weekends going through customs with a suitcase full of Lycra."

Back then, he described his mum as one of his closest friends, but this past week confirms she still doesn't know about his sexuality or the details of his work - Nigeria criminalises homosexuality, and, he explains, there would be no support for her.

Gateau has appeared twice at the Christchurch World Buskers Festival, and performed in a post-earthquake charity gig. He says he got a warm response in a city some label conservative.

"I think when people see drag, the normal connotations spring to mind, about being crude, and lip-synching. But the music is very engaging and very beautiful, from Puccini through to Radiohead. I ask that the audience opens their heart and their ears to begin with - and then if you want to open your eyes and your mind, that can come after."

Drag, he says, puts an audience at ease.

"I think at the beginning, it's an icebreaker. They don't start at zero. The dial is never at zero with heightened performance . . . which makes my job really interesting. I'm either winning them over, or entertaining the people already on board."

But the wigs, the makeup and the costumes (72kg worth will travel through customs) also serve the performer.

"It's weird. I'm deeply empowered by putting on drag. It's almost like painting on war paint or becoming invincible - putting on a mask - but what's interesting for me is the irony of putting on a mask, only to reveal the person behind it."

Those performances, he says, feed more conventional outings. "Last year I did an opera at Glyndebourne with a contemporary composer . . . if I get the opportunity, I always jump at it, because the technicality and the education I get from being onstage in a different genre fuels this. And this fuels that."

He admires this country's pre-eminent soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. "She came at a time when opera singers didn't look like that. Opera singers were renowned for not being as aesthetically beautiful as she was, but I also think her instrument is incredible. It's a combination of those two things that made her the star she is."

The same week as this interview, Gateau - and Te Kanawa - had waded into the debate sparked by UK reviews of a female Irish opera singer. While her voice was praised, her physicality was judged "dumpy" and a "chubby bundle of puppy fat".

"It's misjudged, it's deeply unprofessional," Gateau says. "It's something that used to be a feature of reviews, where the press really attacked the performers, but not in 2014. If she didn't sing it well, then absolutely say she didn't sing it well. But if you're going into ‘chubby bundle of puppy fat' - I think you've missed the point."

His fear: "If you attack the young singers who are tackling this incredible material, our opera houses will be peopled by admittedly beautiful people, but people who aren't singers; who aren't singers in their core."

Le Chocolat Gateau performs June 6-7 in the Auckland International Cabaret Season (June 4-8), at the Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall.

- Sunday Star Times

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