Erik Chalfant is more than just a drag queen. He's a classically trained opera singer with an impressive pair of pipes.
For several years, Chalfant—who holds a master's degree in voice performance from Boston University—has held court at Martuni's as the elegant chanteuse Vanessa Bousay. His performances often play to a packed house.
Separately, Chalfant has also enjoyed a career singing as himself, in his own deep baritone.
So far, Erik and Vanessa have performed as two separate, very distinct, personas. But that all changes at 7pm this Sunday night, when Erik and Vanessa share the stage at Martuni's for the first time.
"My upcoming June 12th show, Me & Mr. V, is a first for my performing life at Martuni's," Chalfant said. "In the same show I will appear both as Vanessa and as myself, Erik Chalfant. Each will sing songs about the other such as 'My Guy,' 'The Man I Love,' 'Daddy,' 'Sophisticated Lady,' and 'I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face.'
Expect some witty banter as well. "The commentary will focus on topics of narcissism, gender stereotypes and the fine art of duplicity," Chalfant said.
The singer has a special fondness for Martuni's, which goes all the way back to his childhood. "Singing at Martuni's is kind of a religious experience for me," he explained. "Growing up the son of a minister and a church musician, I feel very much like some sort of church leader—my ministry is music."
Music, Chalfant feels, can be a healing experience. "Sharing that energy in such an intimate space as Martuni's is a sheer delight!"
Chalfant also appreciates the theatrical vibe of the surrounding neighborhood. "So many artists have passed through here," he said. "It is an honor to contribute to the living history in such an iconic place as Martuni's."
Chalfant also believes in giving back to the community, which has given his voice a welcoming stage. He's a proud supporter of the Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners, an all-volunteer organization which serves free meals to low-income elderly, disabled, homeless and HIV-positive San Franciscans each Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. He can always be counted upon to show up at mealtime, uplifting the needy with songs of joy. "I'm proud to continue the over-30-year tradition of this worthy humanitarian cause," he said.
Chalfant fondly recalls Vanessa's local debut, when she sang the national anthem at AT&T Park for the San Francisco Opera's annual Opera Night At the Ballpark. "When the opera approached me for this appearance, they specifically gave me the option of performing either as Vanessa, or as Erik," Chalfant recalls. "I chose Vanessa, largely because she was new to me at the time—I had sung as Erik the baritone all my life."
Despite his success as Vanessa, Chalfant retains a fondness for singing as himself, pointing out that it takes less time for Erik to get dressed. "And he gets to keep his facial hair!" he said with a laugh.
Though he can hit those operatic notes along with the best of them, Chalfant admits that musical theater is his first love. He particularly enjoys hearing showtunes sung by great operatic voices such as Renee Fleming and Kiri Te Kanawa.
"When in the hands of refined singers like these, the songs transcend genre and shine as the truly great works of art that they are," he said. "This is very much my motivation as a performer—to sing from the great American songbook with an effortlessly produced, classical singing technique."
Chalfant has also embraced another love: teaching. "I have a variety of students, young and old, and with various levels of accomplishment," he said. "The joy I derive from sharing the singing technique given to me by my teacher Phyllis Curtin is beyond compare. To see the magic that works for me work for someone else is exhilarating, and I love doing this."
When asked about his future, Chalfant said that it includes both of his personas—for as long as he can still fit into Vanessa's dresses.
"But I do foresee more opportunities to perform as Erik," he added. "I love that the San Francisco Opera has programmed Broadway musicals into recent summer seasons. I would welcome the opportunity for Erik to sing with SF Opera in this way."
Tickets for 'Me and Mr. V' can be purchased here.