erica melton

‘Viva’s Holiday’: Making an opera, evoking a community

Made in Portland opera embraces much of the city's indie classical scene, and more.

“Thank you for supporting the arts,” the stripper said.

Back in the late 1990s, Astoria-based singer/songwriter Christopher Corbell made his first visit to a Portland strip club. A friend was visiting from New Orleans, where Corbell used to live before moving to Oregon, so the two visited an establishment in the city’s then-seedy Old Town. “I expected a sordid experience,” he recalls. Then one dancer emerged, with a winking act that was smart, tongue in cheek, “really engaging with everyone,” he says. “It was totally different than the experience I expected.” At the end of her act she said, “Thank you for supporting the arts.”

Years later, reading 2009’s Magic Gardens: the Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas, Corbell encountered that same line, and realized that he’d actually experienced Portland’s own Viva, a Willamette Week writer, Williams College grad, preacher’s daughter and author who insisted that stripping could be a feminist, artistic, empowering, and even intellectual experience.

It wasn’t just Viva who left a lasting impression on Corbell. She was part of “an artistic underground that seems to be threatened by gentrification,” he wrote. “Local musicians, artists, writers, and others who recall the cheap rents, shows, and drinks of the ’90s at clubs like Satyricon and La Luna generally knew Viva, both from her time on stage (in rock clubs as well as strip clubs) and from her writing and activism. As old-school bar after bar has closed and rents have climbed rapidly, it is an apt time to look at — and bolster — some of the worldview that made this recent era of the Portland scene magical. Viva has always been a vocal proponent of that outlook; it pervades her Magic Gardens memoirs.”

Later, after he’d moved into composing music in classical idioms (he also became executive director of Portland’s Classical Revolution PDX), Corbell was searching for ideas for his first opera, and remembered the book and its author. He knew he wanted to write a local story, with local heroes, and celebrate the scruffier 1980s-mid 1990s city before it added the -ia suffix. Who better to represent pre-glitz Portland’s simultaneously smart and seedy sides than Viva Las Vegas herself?

“It’s a local legend story,” Corbell explains. “I’m using traditional opera vocabulary, its passions and emotions, to depict someone we know in our community.” Viva certainly makes a better local hero than, say, Tonya Harding.

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Alexander Trull as Brother in "Viva's Holiday."

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass ­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­ soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Matt Storm as Brother in “Viva’s Holiday.” Photo: Jessica Beer.

But Corbell’s one act chamber opera, Viva’s Holiday, which runs Wednesday through Friday, December 2-4 at Portland’s Star Theater, just a few blocks from where Corbell and Viva first met, is more than a celebration of a Portland cultural icon. And Viva isn’t the only Portland figure to collaborate with Corbell on his new opera. As it began to take shape over the last couple of years, the project drew collaborators from across the city, including various strains of its burgeoning indie classical community. Even though it’s not set in Portland, Viva’s Holiday is truly a project that grew directly from the city’s culture. It’s also potentially a new model for making homegrown classical music. In creating it, Corbell wasn’t just composing music, but also a community.

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Taylor emcees OTO's first show, "Will Kill for Vaudeville" at Someday Lounge (2007)

In a blow to the city’s music scene, one of Portland’s artistic visionaries, Katie Taylor, has stepped down as Opera Theater Oregon’s artistic director.

“After five years on the pony – the zesty, prancing pony that is OTO — I’ve decided it’s time for me to step down. I was going to invent a sex scandal (not involving ponies) to explain my departure, but then I remembered that this is Portland, and no one would be likely to care, even if ponies were involved,” Taylor wrote on the innovative company’s website. “So…I’ll just say straight out that it’s been an amazing ride, and I feel lucky to have met and worked with so many amazing people, but it’s time for me to say goodbye.”

Taking the Tarnhelm (redubbed the Tan-helm in OTO’s Baywatch-style version of Wagner’s The Rheingold) at OTO will be the alternative opera company’s musical director, Erica Melton, and film division director Jen Wechsler.

The company will throw a farewell party for Taylor at one of OTO’s original venues, Someday Lounge, on June July 24, which will include a short film and “opera karaoke.”

During her half-decade at the helm, OTO distinguished itself as one of Portland’s most creative performing arts companies, with ambitions inversely proportional to its budgets. A bastion of the city’s burgeoning alt-classical scene, the company used humor, pop culture references, a fun, informal atmosphere, and especially beer (at venues such as Someday Lounge, Alberta Rose Theater and Clinton Street Theater) to lure enthusiastic younger audiences to modern, sometimes wacky productions of classic operas, including producing a Portland-centric version of John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera (also the inspiration for Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera).

Taylor directed a spooky, Twilight Zonish version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at Someday and co-commissioned a new score for Filmusik’s Hercules vs. Vampires. Although they winked at some of opera’s stuffy pretensions, OTO’s productions always took the music itself seriously in the quest to “make opera safe for America.”

OTO has also been celebrated for partnering with other alt-classical outfits, including Electric Opera Company, Filmusik, and Classical Revolution. Taylor and Dark Horse comic artist Dan Schaefer (Batman, Spiderman, et al.), created a “singing comic book” for this year’s production of Massenet’s Werther called Out of Eden.

Taylor’s departure comes just weeks after she shepherded the organization to a stable  home at McMenamin’s Mission Theater. That somewhat eased the sting of Taylor’s heroic, close-but-no-candy-cigar efforts to obtain downtown’s Guild Theater as a home and performance venue for several of the city’s other alternative classical organizations.

All that work apparently came at a price, however. The company is run by volunteers, and Taylor has had to pick up work to recover her finances.

“Running the organization left me with little time for the actual writing that was the most important part of the work for me,” Taylor says. “I will miss it very much, but it was definitely time to move on. I’m also excited to see where Erica and Jen take OTO.” She told OAW she’s “working on a cross-genre book of short stories whose protagonists all have psoriasis and a sci fi novel about a new weight loss gimmick with hideously complicated side effects, raising the question of how much of who we are is our bodies and how much is our minds.”

Let’s hope we’ll see more of Taylor’s prodigious talent, inclusive attitude, and artistic ambition on Portland stages soon. And let’s hope OTO thrives without her leadership.

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