Josepha Gayer has lived out many of her dreams, the most recent of which was being able to do a one-woman show.
After seeing the legendary, late Elaine Stritch perform a one-woman show in New York, Gayer thought, “That would be so much fun to do.”
It should probably be mentioned by now that Gayer, a Philadelphia native, is an accomplished opera singer, known for playing more comedic roles, such as the Old Lady in Candide.
In 2011, she was on a two-week to trip in Italy with her daughter, Robin, when she was connected to actor and director Brian Lane Green. He told her he could help her with a one-woman show.
“I said, ‘I’m in Italy with my daughter,’ and he said, ‘That’s a great idea for a show,’” Gayer recalled. “He said, ‘Every time a song comes into your head while you’re traveling, write it down.’”
And she did.
These thoughts and scribblings of songs — from “Mambo Italiano” to “We Open in Venice” from Kiss Me, Kate — became Renaissance: Notes From Italy. In the show, which she started performing in 2013, she talks about the trip that she said allowed her and her daughter to find something “20 years of therapy couldn’t give you.”
Though, of course, besides bringing her closer to her daughter, the trip allowed her time to sightsee as they had 15 days to travel, explore — and eat.
“I saved two places in Italy for gelato, Rome and Florence, and I was not disappointed, let me tell you,” she laughed.
She will bring the performance, which includes classical pieces and selections from the Great American Songbook, to the RRazz Room at the Prince Theater on June 26 in celebration of her debut CD release July 1 of the same name.
Gayer grew up in Southwest Philadelphia before moving to Cheltenham, where she lived for a while. She’s back living in Philadelphia today.
She got her singing start in her synagogue at Beth Am Israel before it moved to Penn Valley. Synagogues were really the foundation for her growing musical talent, which influenced her greatly.
At Beth Am, she started by helping lead junior congregation services, where she learned to get up and sing in front of a big group of people. Her parents later joined Temple Sinai in West Oak Lane before it moved to Dresher. That’s where Gayer started doing her first theatrical shows, including The Pajama Game and Kismet.
When she was 17, she sang in a quartet at Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park.
“I had never done anything like that before,” she said. “You sing every Friday night and Saturday morning and all the Jewish holidays — you learn how to just get up there and do it.”
While her career seemingly started to take off, she switched gears and didn’t sing for 10 years.
After two years at Temple University, she moved to Pittsburgh with her husband, who was in dental school there. She double majored in voice and music education at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, and then I had three children and didn’t sing a note for 10 years,” she said. “I was raising my kids and, in those days, it wasn’t easy to go on the road. It’s much easier today for singers to do that.”
This was in “olden times,” she laughed.
But her love for singing didn’t stay dormant for too long. She just got a later start than some of her colleagues.
She and her late ex-husband moved back to Philadelphia. He opened a dental practice, and they joined Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.
Gayer started doing shows there, such as South Pacific. A friend she met at the synagogue knew someone at the traveling music fairs, including one in Valley Forge, which have since closed.
Her friend encouraged her to audition.
“I went and I made the cut. I went to New York, sang an audition, and I got into a show with a very famous tenor named Jan Peerce; he was the one who inspired me — in the show I talk about this — and he came up to me and said, ‘Shayna maidel, go back and study,’” she remembered with a laugh. “This was in 1973.”
And she listened.
During her college years, she realized her voice was growing. With that in mind and Peerce’s advice, she turned to opera.
“I always wanted to do Broadway, but my voice got big and bigger. I realized it wasn’t a Broadway voice, and so that’s what I did,” she said.
She found a voice teacher in Philadelphia with whom she studied, as Peerce suggested. Two years later, she made her professional debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony, singing Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8.”
“I was off and running,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Her age was unique, setting her apart from her younger colleagues. While she was busy raising her children, she found success nonetheless.
“It took me a while for things to really pop for me because people would call me and say, ‘Can you come and do this show?’ and I would say I have to hire a housekeeper so you have to pay me enough to make my ends meet,” she laughed. “Life changed and I went on to get divorced and remarried. I then made my debut at the New York City Opera in 1986 — 10, 11 years after my first professional debut — and it’s been going on ever since.”
Her credits include Mrs. Bass in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline with Santa Fe Opera, Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore and Cecilia March in Little Women with Glimmerglass Opera among many, many others. She’s performed with companies in cities all over the country and the world.
“I’m lucky to have the career I did because I was one of the top character mezzos in the U.S.,” she said, adding she was especially known for playing comedic roles. “Not bad for a little girl from Philadelphia.”
She remembers specifically when she played the Old Lady in a production of Candide, a comedic role in the operetta based on Voltaire’s piece of the same name, with music written by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s daughter came to a performance Gayer was in and told her, “My father would have laughed and cried over you,” something Gayer never forgot.
She grew up in a musical home, which helped spark her passion for singing and performing.
“Music has been a part of my life, my whole life,” she said. “I cannot imagine what people feel like who don’t have music go through their soul. I just can’t imagine. I thought everybody got a chill and goosebumps when an overture started to play. I found out later not everybody experienced that, but I always did.
“I’ve had a wonderfully charmed life.”
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