A stripper comes home to spend the holidays with her conservative parents. Arias ensue. That’s a crude synopsis of what’s in store for viewers of Viva’s Holiday, a one-act opera gracing Portland stages this Christmas season and offering a welcome alternative to singing trees and snarky elves. It’s based on a chapter from Magic Gardens, the memoir of local writer and stripper Viva Las Vegas, and it’s back, as they say, due to popular demand, having sold out its three shows last year.
It’s the brainchild of composer and songwriter Christopher Corbell, who first saw Viva at one of her shows at Mary’s Club, and was intrigued when she ended her show with “Thank you for supporting the arts.” Several years later, Corbell was reading Viva’s memoir during a search for material for his first opera, and remembered the chance encounter. He immediately saw the potential.
“The episode where we find out she is a stripper had this emotional power to me,” Corbell says “That really spoke to me, and setting it during the holidays was another kind of layer.”
It wasn’t just the source material that made Corbell think this would be a good fit. Viva’s memoir also goes into her experiences singing opera in Europe. Still, asking someone to write an opera about them is awkward—even moreso if they're at work.
“He came in [to Mary’s] with my book and it was all dog-eared,” says Viva. “When someone says, 'Can I take photos of you?'—that happens a million times a day. But no one says, ‘Can I make an opera based on your book’? It sounds like a crazy endeavor.”
But Corbell was serious, and Viva’s Holiday is the proof. The domestic backdrop becomes the setting for an exploration of femininity, society’s definition of art, and women’s evolving role in society at large. It also highlights the ongoing stigma of stripping. And last year, it went down a storm.
“It’s a Portland feel-good opera. People were really moved by it," says Viva (who doesn't actually appear in the opera herself). “The stripper community felt super legitimized. Because we have all lived that story, or are hoping not to. There are a lot of girls who hide their identity from their parents, their children’s teachers—it’s strange, as it’s legal work.”
While the subject matter may be a departure from mainstream opera, Viva’s Holiday plays with the same musical motifs, structures, and instrumentation you might find in a regional opera company’s production of classics like Don Giovanni or La Boheme. Corbell, who formerly directed Classical Revolution PDX, has made Viva’s story into an opera for contemporary times.
“It’s a lyrical opera,” says Corbell. “The thing about those tools [musical motifs and instrumentation] is I feel like that is a language I understood really early on as a musician, but our academic culture has relegated it to this historical period. Which doesn’t really happen in other domains as much as it does in classical music.”
Corbell also has other motives for remounting Viva’s Holiday: He wants reviews. Though last year’s run attracted plenty of press, the shows themselves didn't receive as many reviews as Corbell would have liked (though Oregon ArtsWatch had this to say), and it’s that kind of critical legitimization he sees as vital. By scheduling a break between the show’s two-week run, he’s hoping local publications will seize the opportunity to critically weigh in.
“I would love to see underground opera in Portland become just like an underground theater scene,” he says, “where we get reviews for local artists who aren’t just trying to climb some pyramid in New York.”