Two opera brothers tell their story in ‘My Evil Twin’

Opera theater

The phrase “evil twin” appears in a number of books, movies, songs, computer games and more, given the thematic possibilities of blaming someone’s misdeeds on a lookalike, or the idea that you can create an alternative identity for yourself.

As the They Might Be Giants popsters put it in one of their songs, “My evil twin, bad weather friend / He always wants to start when I want to start. “

Jim and John Demler, on the other hand, are identical identical twins who have been and remain close, although each jokes that he is prettier and more charming than the other. But they’ve also had enough ups and downs over the years, even as particularly close siblings, to be the focus of a new theatrical production called, well, “My Evil Twin.”

It is a musical cabaret featuring the two veteran (bass) singers from Massachusetts, who have performed opera, oratorios, musical theater and more. But “My Evil Twin”, which plays at the Northampton Community Arts Trust from August 13-15, is not a fictional story: it is based on the real-life stories of the Demler brothers, raised in Rochester, New York, and now living in Boston (Jim) and Pittsfield (John).

Using humor and more poignant moments, the production examines the special bonds identical twins can have – as well as the intense sibling rivalries these relationships can bring – as the Demlers, now in the midst of in their sixties, revisit their high school years, work on them becoming professional singers, and the toll the two face when their plans don’t go exactly as planned.

“My Evil Twin” is the most recent work conceived by Harley Erdman, playwright and librettist who teaches theater at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, who teaches music at Amherst College. . The two friends have already premiered two acclaimed operas, “The Garden of the Martyrs” and “The Scarlet Professor”, based on historical events in the valley.

Erdman and Sawyer bonded with the Demler brothers on “The Scarlet Professor” in 2017, which revisited the saga of Smith College professor Newton Arvin, arrested in 1960 along with a few other Smith professors and local men for possession of photos half-naked men. Sawyer was looking for someone to play the role of a police detective for the new opera, and when he heard Jim Demler during a performance at the Boston Lyric Opera, he thought he had found his man.

“I didn’t know him, but I liked his voice,” Sawyer said. “So I called him to come to one of our workshops and he said, ‘I’m busy that day, but why don’t you ask my brother? “”

This is how he and Erdman heard about John Demler, who sings in various productions in the Berkshires and also teaches French and Spanish at a college in Dalton, just outside Pittsfield. “Because of their different schedules, we had John for the workshops, then Jim for the directing, and they were both great,” Sawyer said.

Looking back, Erdman says it’s not entirely clear how the idea of ​​directing a production based on the Demler brothers came about, although he says their core skills alone represented a good entry point.

“Even if everything else wasn’t defined, you have these two incredibly charismatic, compelling, identical twins… who are great on stage and have amazing opera vocals,” he said. “Like many designed plays or new works, you start with the idea of ​​the performers rather than a particular idea, theme or script.”

Another attraction for Erdman: his wife is an identical twin, just like his mother. “I have been surrounded by identical twins literally my entire life,” he said.

Strut

After “The Scarlet Professor,” Erdman and Sawyer spent time getting to know the brothers over the next year, asking them about their experiences (they also spoke to the twins’ sister).

They found the brothers’ stories and their distinct personalities – John something of a comedian, Jim a bit more serious – a compelling setting for a stripped-down production that mostly only features the brothers on stage (Sawyer provides piano accompaniment and some comic vocal parts).

The songs and script, says Erdman, to which Demler and “My Evil Twin” directors Ron Bashford have all made significant contributions, represent “a slightly fictionalized version of their lives.” It might make them play higher versions of themselves, but the details of the story are true. “

John Demler, on a recent phone call, remembers sitting down with his brother Erdman and Sawyer “at Harley’s kitchen table and just digging into our past, telling them our stories … and they just got it. took and ran with it and did an amazing job. “

Humor is a key part of this story. It is indeed amusing to see two bespectacled older men strutting around with false bragging at the start of “My Evil Twin” as they remember their high school glory days as star athletes, newspaper editors. students and stars of the annual musical. “Everyone loved the Demler twins! Jim said. “Twins are invited to every party … And you know what the parties were like in 1971.”

This is Sawyer’s cue to offer some background music, as he plays the intro and opening bars of “Light My Fire” by The Doors and the brothers string it up with a bit of dancing while swinging. arms and rolling the pelvis.

The twins, like many twins usually do, ended up at the same college in New Mexico, where Jim tells the story of a date with a young woman who, like him, is involved in the school opera. But when he goes to meet her at the campus bar, he finds John with his arm around her in one of the booths.

“What a girl,” John said. “She was all smiles.”

“Why shouldn’t she be?” Jim said. “She thought she had a date with Jim Demler!” He sings a song, “Too Nice a Guy,” about how girls just don’t think he’s hot or dangerous enough – and how badly he really wants to be the bad guy.

But the twins also revisit more serious stories: their drinking father, their mother’s emotional breakdown when they were boys. John also had to deal with Jim’s greatest success as a singer and his struggles to master his own voice. Jim, meanwhile, goes through a difficult divorce in his mid-40s, and at one point the brothers insult each other, both claiming the other is a failure.

“They must have taken a lot of risks with this show,” Erdman says. “They must have been vulnerable and exposed things about their lives… But they threw themselves into it with a lot of courage and heart.”

“I think part of the story is how time evens out things,” adds Sawyer. “They grew up close but competitive, then they were a little more distant, then they got back together.”

In an email, Jim Demler, who teaches singing at Boston University, said he thinks revisiting the past hadn’t been that difficult: “I think the reverse is true. is cathartic. Every time we rehearse these scenes, I remember something new, which I enjoy.

He also joked that he and John had “a great relationship!” We’re far enough in terms of distance that our women don’t get too mad at us. We have maintained a weekly Yahtzee game on Zoom since the start of the pandemic which we still look forward to. “

For his part, John Demler said he felt “blessed” to be able to play alongside Jim, whom he calls “my best friend,” at this point in his life. “It’s just a really special moment, a kind of self-twinge that we were able to do this.”

“My Evil Twin” had a brief 2019 premiere at the Ko Festival of Performance at Amherst College, but the pandemic has canceled a number of performances scheduled for last year. Now the show has been tweaked and updated. He performs at the Workroom, the Community Arts Trust’s largest performance space, August 13-14 at 8 p.m. and August 15 at 2 p.m.

The performance is presented by APE @ Hawley. For more information, including COVID-19 protocols, and to purchase tickets ($ 20), visit apearts.org/ape–hawley.html and click on the APE @ Hawley link.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]


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