People Who Make NY Special

How a Classically Trained Soprano Became a Burlesque and Nightlife Sensation

Aerialist-soprano Marcy Richardson doesn’t sing upside down “just to be cool.”

Photo by John Abbott/Courtesy of Marcy Richardson

On a recent Friday afternoon, soprano-aerialist Marcy Richardson (and her beagle, Watsonmet me for a cider at Bushwick’s Brooklyn Cider House. She had just come from a training session and had time to spare before her call at Théâtre XIV, the now permanent home of the opera-burlesque troupe Company XIV. With the group, she’s been performing the high-art equivalent of 11 o’clock numbers, singing opera while twirling and doing splits on a lyra hoop.

Richardson has been a Company XIV fixture since 2015, when she debuted as one of the evil stepsisters in Cinderella. She’s taken on numerous roles since then, such as Champagne in the holiday extravaganza Nutcracker Rouge and Athena in PARIS!a haute couture reimagining of Greek mythology. As the Mad Hatter in Company XIV’s current production, Queen of Hearts, which riffs on Alice in Wonderland, she performs a showstopping, operatic rendition of Tears for Fears’s “Mad World.” While sitting down and sipping cider (rosé for her, half-sour for me), we talked about opera, acrobatics, and what it takes to put an act like hers together.

Marcy Richardson Company XIV
Marcy Richardson as Matador in Boylesque Bullfight. / Photos by Deneka Peniston/Courtesy of Marcy Richardson

What Should We Do: To someone who has no idea what you’re all about, how would you describe your act?
Marcy Richardson: It’s not like: I can sing upside down just to be cool. There’s always a dramatic motivation for it, which I think is what makes it special and unique. In Cinderella, singing opera on the pole was an impressive act that had humorous elements to it, because the whole idea is absurd—I still do that act every week in the Bartschland Follies. In PARIS!, I sang an operatic rendition of “Skyfall” and there was no comic element to it. It was pretty much: Hey, this is a power piece, we’re really using it to show the goddess’s power. There was very much a dramatic motivation for that. In other shows, the aerial/vocal moment is the first beautiful and poignant thing that you see in the show. It’s cool to have “my act” be all sorts of things.

Madonna was the first person I actually sang opera on the pole for.

WSWD: What came first for you, the singing or the hoop?
Richardson: Singing, absolutely. I am an opera singer by trade: I’ve been in voice lessons since I was 15 years old. Originally, I wanted to be the next Madonna, but my voice teacher at my first voice lesson said, “You’re a classical soprano.” I’d never tried singing in the upper part of my range because I didn’t grow up listening to musical theater or opera. I didn’t even know how to make that sound, or why I would make it. In a few weeks, she had me singing Handel and Baroque music, which is still my specialty to this day.

I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in opera from [Indiana University], and I really was following the traditional opera career trajectory. Typically, you get your bachelor’s and get your apprenticeship at a few different opera companies, which I did. When you’re in residency as a young artist, you get small roles in operas and you understudy larger roles. They usually do a production just for the young artists, and you do opera outreach—most companies get education grants. I did all that, but in 2008, half the companies I worked with had gone under. I had just moved to New York and started auditioning for anything to see what would happen, and, in 2010, I started taking pole-dancing classes just for fun.

Marcy Richardson Company XIV
Nutcracker Rouge / Photos by Mark Shelby Perry/Courtesy of Marcy Richardson

WSWD: So you did have some athletic prowess back then?
Richardson: Yes, even though I don’t consider myself a dancer like those who are Juilliard trained. But growing up, I always danced in musicals. I took ballet since I was 4 or 5, and I was always on sports teams. It’s not like I went from being a couch potato to being an acrobat. It doesn’t work like that.

It’s not like I went from being a couch potato to being an acrobat. It doesn’t work like that.

WSWD: But you were new to the pole.
Richardson: Yes, I saw a YouTube video and I was like, Wow, that’s really beautiful. I would love to be able to do something like that. I started taking classes and bought a pole for my apartment shortly thereafter. Then a few years in, I started participating in pole fitness competitions for fun. I definitely did not intend for it to become part of my performing career or persona, but it very organically ended up happening.

WSWD: How did you develop your own, unique specialty?
Richardson: People started reaching out and asking, “Did you ever try singing and doing acrobatics at the same time?” At first I was like, Eh, I don’t want to seem gimmicky or lame, and I don’t want the singing to suffer, because then you’re just covering up that you’re not an awesome singer. I wanted to make sure that, if I did it, the singing sounded just as perfect in the air. I kind of dipped my toe in the water and did some singing in the hoop at Duane Park.

My first aerial opera gig was at this rave party at a Brooklyn warehouse with no heat and feral cats and kittens running around. It was one of those parties where they don’t send out the location until a couple of hours before. I just thought the acoustics were great and I was excited to see how the audience would receive it. I sang “Lascia ch’io Pianga” from Handel’s RinaldoIt was a relatively far out crowd, and they got extremely quiet when I started singing up there, which caught me off guard in the space. I’ve come to really embrace when that happens, because that means the crowd is leaning in and respecting that I’m singing live and unamplified. They went crazy at the end and I got a lot of “You made me cry!” which also surprised me, given the party atmosphere. Over time that’s something I’ve come to hear pretty often, but I never tire of knowing I made people feel something.

I wanted to make sure that, if I did it, the singing sounded just as perfect in the air.

WSWD: When was the first time you sang opera on a pole?
Richardson: When it comes to the pole, Madonna’s people—she’s my idol and inspiration—came to town casting for the Rebel Heart Tour and they somehow found my website and asked me to prepare a version of her song “Holy Water” to sing on the pole for the audition, which I’d never done. I got far enough into the process that I was one of three pole dancers they put in front of her. It was extremely nerve-racking. I don’t think they told her for what I was going to do. She was like, “What the fuck is happening?” But Madonna was the first person I actually sang opera on the pole for.

Marcy Richardson Company XIV
As Matador in Boylesque Bullfight. / Photos by Mark Shelby Perry/Courtesy of Marcy Richardson

WSWD: When and how did Company XIV come along?
Richardson: In 2012, I was singing in an opera that Austin McCormick was choreographing, Così Faran Tutti by composer Jonathan Dawe. As in most operas, I didn’t have a ton of interaction with the dancers and choreographer; that’s often a separate thing. But a few years later, he happened to be looking for a soprano. At that time, at least three or four people threw my hat in the ring, saying, “This girl is doing really cool things.” So we had coffee and here I am.

WSWD: What type of opera music is your favorite?
Richardson: Baroque music just comes so easily to me; I don’t have to work hard at it. My tone quality really fits the music—and also just my personal taste. You have to sing what you like and I fucking love Baroque music. A lot of opera singers love Verdi, and I am just not that into it. I don’t dramatically connect to it for some reason, and it’s not music that I love. With contemporary music, I happen to have a really, really good ear—I have close to perfect pitch and I am quite good at picking up difficult music with difficult harmonies, things that are not very melodic.

Also there’s not a lot of expectation of how it should sound with Baroque and contemporary. If you’re singing an aria from La Traviata, there’s pretty much an expectation of what optional high notes you should take. There are a lot of preconceived notions of the style of singing, whereas you can make them pretty much your own in Baroque and contemporary. There’s more room to be unique.

I have close to perfect pitch and I am quite good at picking up difficult music with difficult harmonies.

WSWD: How closely do you have to be mindful of nutrition—both for your body and voice—when you’re actively performing?
Richardson: I don’t watch what I eat for my voice, per se, even though it’s important to stay hydrated. I work with a lot of dancers who are 15 to 20 years younger than me, so I take it upon myself to be in as great a shape and look as fantastic and perform with as much or more energy than most of these people. I take that really seriously. It means I have to eat clean. I work out; I go to the gym.

I also think that eating really clean as much as I can on show days allows me to go out a few times a week, because I love to go to restaurants and bars. So as long as the majority of the time I am not overfeeding myself, this means that I can go get a burger at the Johnsons, eat some pizza [at Artichoke], and have wine with every meal. I definitely don’t cut out the alcohol. I love my martinis, but I don’t do desserts, and on show days, I try really hard to plan my eating accordingly, so that I look and feel great in costume.

WSWD: How do you sustain your busy performance schedule?
Richardson: My weekends are really fucking tough, because on Fridays I do Queen of Hearts, and right after that I go to the McKittrick Hotel for the Bartschland Follies, where I open the second act around 12:30 a.m. On Saturdays, we have our two shows at 5 and 10 p.m. I’ve also been singing at my church gig on Sundays this month, and then I’m doing a show.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. You just have to make sure you get enough sleep and pace yourself. But once you’re warmed up, in costume and makeup, I feel like you’re kind of set up and ready to go. Going to Bartschland, I am already up, my adrenaline is already pumping. I love it. I am here for it.

Marcy Richardson Company XIV
As the Mad Hatter in Queen of Hearts. / Photos by Sam San Roman/Courtesy of Marcy Richardson

WSWD: Why do you think there’s such a widespread appreciation for productions such as Company XIV’s?
Richardson: People are hungry for lighthearted stuff. There’s so much darkness in the world right now, politically and whatnot. There’s been so many negative cases around sexual misconduct that it’s refreshing to walk into a space where sexuality and sensuality are celebrated. Just the freedom of it all—I think people are attracted to that. 

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