BetteBack April 25, 1971: Bette Midler As The Acid Queen In Tommy (Interview)

The Seattle Times
April 25, 1971

Consulting the mirror in Tommy
Consulting the mirror in Tommy

Seattle Opera has  never had a villain quite like the Acid Queen. Nor a singer quite like Bette Midler, who plays  the queen.

But then “Tommy” isn’t exactly  straight   opera.   The p r o d u c t i on, which opens Wednesday night  at  the Moore Theater, is something called   “rock opera.”

Bette, the female lead, has never sung in anything oper­atic although she’s  “been to a few  operas.”  “My favorite is Die Frau Olrne Schatten.” That’s Strauss isn’t it?” she said.

And Bette (pronounced Bet because her mother didn’t know Bette D a v is pro­ nounced her name “Betty”) has a rather unconventional background  for “opera”:

She used to sing in men’s steam  houses.

SHE HAS appeared recent­ly on a number of late-night television talk shows.  She also sang in New York musical productions of “Salvation” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Her hair wanders about a foot  out  on  each  side  of her head and she looks like a candidate for Barbra Streis­ and’s  youngest,  wildest  and wiriest sister. She  doesn’t sing like  Barbra,  however. She said:

“I sound like the girl who sings    “Tommy    Can    You Hear Me?” (in the  recording of “Tommy” made by its creators,  The Who.)

Bette’s publicity describes her sound as “rock blues.” but she says she “sings almost everything -whatever appeals to my emotion and intellect.”

And about every kind of music is represented by the sponsors of  “Tommy”  – The  Seattle  Opera Associa­tion  is presenting  it. in coop­eration with The Seattle Repertory Theater and KOL Radio.

Bette considers “Tommy” operatic because, “It is all singing,  and  no  speaking. And because everything flows musically, and it’s as exciting as any opera could be.”

THE  PLOT  of  “Tommy”  is as complicated as any tra­ditional opera plot: Tommy goes deaf, dumb and blind through trauma. Tommy re­gains his senses after going through a modern sort of Dante’s Hell. He becomes a rock star, and the plots gets even thicker.

Bette sings Tommy ‘s mother as well as the Acid Queen, who seduces Tommy, She said the roles are “the heaviest  I’ve  ever   had.” And that the queen “has nothing to do with acid or drugs.”

“She has to do with the ferociousness of female sex­uality. It’s not just a sexual seduction.  It’s  symbolic  of the gigantic commercialization of femaleness.”

According to Bette, “None of Tommy is meant to be taken literally.

It’s  all   symbolic   and its message is timeless,   she  said. “It’s about how we cov­er our eyes, our ears and cut off our tongues and how we isolate ourselves and how we are isolated by society.

“The   real   message, I guess, is how important it is to find freedom and that you can’t  find  it  through  God or drugs or through anything  but yourself.”

SYMBOLIC  IT  may  be, but overtly there  are  shockers in the production. As to how  the  audience  might re­act, Bette said: “I think they’ll be wiped out. ‘Tommy’ will open up something people are not ready for.”

She wants “everyone to come,” and – thinks “the freaks will come because they already know the score, But I hope the older, more sedate people will come too, because they  are  interested in opera and should be curi­ous about what we can  do.”

About herself Bette had two things to say:

“I eat a lot. I am tiny” and the first thing anyone ever says to me is , ‘Oh, you’re so short!'”

She’d rather have people say “Oh you look like Bette Midler, but you’re too short.”

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