Synesthesia is a neurological trait that causes people to experience one stimulus in multiple ways — for example, someone sees specific colors upon hearing a specific sound. Thorgy Thor, a Brooklyn-based drag queen, doesn’t have synesthesia, but she did incorporate a pseudo-experiment based around it as part of her Pittsburgh show. While the symphony played behind her, Thor put brush to canvas and painted what she heard.
Thor and her “Thorcestra” made their U.S. premiere in Pittsburgh alongside the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on June 27. Thor previously gained worldwide fame through two appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In both season eight and All Stars season three, Thor sought a way to bring together her love of classical music and drag performance together, leading to the creation of her separate theatrical show.
For fans of classical music, the show, appropriately named “Thorgy and the Thorcestra,” offered something very different from most PSO performances in Heinz Hall. The show included an eclectic selection of musical numbers ranging from romantic classics to current pop hits like Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
Going into the show, which combined elements of drag culture with a symphony orchestra, I had no idea what to expect. Despite that, it really wasn’t what I expected. The “Thorchestra” was featured far more than I anticipated and Thorgy Thor herself far less.
Conductor Edwin Outwater introduced the performance by asking what would happen if you combine a drag show and classical music. “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the first single released from the 1976 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the first performance of the evening, answers that question. If you can imagine Beethoven’s music and disco had a love-child, then you know exactly what this song sounds like. It provided the perfect opener for Thor’s show.
From the off you could tell that the PSO were enjoying themselves and the performance’s theatrical atmosphere. Most performances at Heinz Hall with the PSO are visually plain — the audience is there for an auditory experience, not a visual one — but “A Fifth of Beethoven” was accompanied by disco ball lighting and colored spotlights shining up the back wall of the stage.
Part way through the opening performance, Thor herself came onstage to join the PSO as a violin soloist, putting her classical conservatory training on full display.
As with most drag shows, “Thorgy and the Thorcestra” contained elements of Thor’s personality through conversation with the audience in addition to the musical performances, and she used her comedy interludes to regularly lavish praise on the Grammy-winning PSO and Outwater. Thor also took some time to explain the origin of the “Thorcestra” idea and how it come about.
The self-titled “queen of classical music” grew up playing viola, violin and cello and studied music at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School in Connecticut and at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music. Thor graduated with a dual degree in violin and viola performance before moving to Brooklyn and entering the drag scene there.
The “Thorchestra” made its debut in Nova Scotia in 2018 after Thor expressed interest in the idea on RuPaul’s show. Thor reportedly heard from hundreds of people around the world all expressing interest in joining the “Thorcestra” and performing classical music in drag.
Thor used the performance to shed light on those forgotten by history such as Dame Ethel Smythe, a suffragette who wrote “Song of the Women” which became the official anthem of the English suffragette movement.
Falling at the end of Pride month, the performance paid tribute to LGBTQ+ history, musicians and composers, such as Aaron Copland, whose piece “Hoe Down” from the ballet “Rodeo” was performed. Thor and the PSO performed Richard Rodgers’ “I Enjoy Being a Girl” to tell the story of the Brunswick Four Minus One and their rendition of the parody, “I Enjoy Being a Dyke.” Vocalist Katy Shackleton Williams sang both versions for the audience and added a tailcoat over her red ball gown for the latter.
The performance was a multimedia endeavor and included pre-recorded video asides from Thor as well as short documentaries about some of the songs, such as The Brunswick Four and “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and Dame Ethel, the suffragette composer who spent some time in Holloway Prison and performed her anthem behind bars along with other suffragettes including Emmeline Pankhurst.
Overall, the night was a celebration of classical music, drag culture and Pride. It brought together an audience of LGBTQ+ individuals, allies and classical music fans — although those groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In my opinion, conductor Edwin Outwater stole the show. If you get the chance, you should go for his straight-faced, dead-pan performance of the last verse of Madonna’s “Vogue” alone.
The celebration of drag definitely took a back seat, with the exception of Thorgy Thor herself who went through multiple wardrobe changes, beginning with a Dolly Parton-esque pink sequined jumpsuit. That being said, the first half of the performance included a walk-off consisting of audience members from four different categories — over-60, under-14, gayest and doesn’t want to be on stage. The four strutted their stuff to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” after Outwater’s unsuccessful attempt to set the performance to Johann Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” Unsurprisingly, the self-declared gayest audience member won the competition, although doesn’t-want-to-be-on-stage gave him a run for his money, opening up as the audience cheered her on.
The night ended with a traditional, drag show-esque performance by Thor — now dressed in a rainbow fringe dress with a cropped jean jacket — to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ 2014 smash hit, “Uptown Funk.” Thor danced across the stage and strutted through the audience dancing on laps and thanking audience members for coming. A triumphant and strong end to a singular show.