Love, loss and opera

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“Bandwidth: The Ups & Downs of a Lesbian Diva,” explores co-writer Ilene Sameth’s decision to leave opera as a young woman, and how, 30 years later, she’s returning to the stage


  • Ilene Sameth in "Bandwidth." Photo: Shelby Zoe Colby

As a young woman, Ilene Sameth gave up her burgeoning opera career to live openly as a lesbian. This decision was followed by a tumultuous period in her life during which Sameth gained weight, lost weight, found love, and completely re-examined her outlook on life. Now, 30 years later, she’s returning to the stage to confront her past. In “Bandwidth: The Ups & Downs of a Lesbian Diva,” playing at Dixon Place in the Lower East Side on July 11th, Sameth tells the story of her experiences with life, love, and more than one kind of loss.

The story of Bandwidth begins during Sameth’s time as a professional opera singer. A favorite role of hers from this time, which features in “Bandwidth,” was Carmen, which she said is “just so well known that you feel this incredible responsibility to perform it well.” Though she loved the opera, she would soon have to leave it behind.

As much as Sameth loved pretending to be someone else on stage, she couldn’t keep on pretending after the show ended. At the time, there were no out lesbians in the world of opera, though there were some openly gay men. This lack of lesbian representation, for Sameth, made coming out while continuing her career “basically impossible.”

Around the same time she decided to give up her opera career, Sameth had been gaining weight. Though the pressure to maintain a certain appearance was another factor that pushed her towards leaving opera, Sameth said she believes her weight gain may also have been related to the pressure of keeping her sexuality a secret, noting that she “was having to hide so much of myself in the world.”

Sameth began work on “Bandwidth” two years ago, during a period of self-reflection that began when she turned 50. Now 58, Sameth said that her 50th birthday was a turning point in her life, prompting her to lose almost 100 pounds and change her lifestyle in the pursuit of health. As a part of this change, Sameth looked back an earlier turning point, her departure from singing. She would write out vignettes of incidents and experiences from her past, and her partner, writer Barbara Raab would, as Sameth put it, “make them more cohesive, make them funnier.” Sameth said that all the words spoken in “Bandwidth” are hers, making it “a very honest play,” that is “completely autobiographical.”

The title emerged from Sameth’s new philosophy on life. When changing her lifestyle, she said she came to the conclusion that “in order to make changes in your life, you need to expand your bandwidth to understand what you need to do,” and that the title “Bandwidth” came almost instantly. The show’s subtitle, “The Ups & Downs of a Lesbian Diva” took some more work. Sameth said it was “about the 27th version of a tagline” she thought of, but when she did, everything clicked into place.

One of the challenges of keeping “Bandwidth” honest was making sure to portray people accurately. Statements taken out of context and put in front of an audience can make even the best of people come off poorly. Sameth says that this was at the front of her mind as she crafted “Bandwidth,” saying that “people say things and do things in your life that can feel hurtful at times, but you learn through life that it’s not intentional and that they’re only doing their best,” and that she tried to depict everyone mentioned in the show, including herself, in an honest light.

Despite the challenges she faced, creating and performing in “Bandwidth” has been a largely therapeutic experience for Sameth. Much of this connection comes from the warm reception the show received at its first performances in May. Sameth said that the reaction from the very first audience was “really wonderful,” and that as the show went on, she felt that there was a “profound connection” between herself and the audience, and that they were able to bond over the shared experiences and “battles that we all face.”

During an interview with Straus News, Sameth also shared her advice for those who may be struggling, as she was, between being true to their identity and having a successful career. To Sameth, the two go hand in hand: “You can’t fully achieve what you want in life unless you’re honest about yourself,” she said, and “if you can’t be who you are, you’re never going to be as successful.” Sameth also highlighted the numerous resources that exist to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination. She noted that there are “certainly more than when I was coming out,” and said that people in situations like she once was should “hopefully turn to those.”

Summing up her experiences with “Bandwidth,” Sameth said that “returning to the stage after almost 30 years, to a sold-out first performance was pretty good.” She described the show as “a funny and moving evening” that she hopes will “really make [the audience] think about things in a different way,” and take them through the same process of reflection and self-discovery that she experienced while creating it.

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