‘Viva’s Holiday’ review: Homespun home run?

Successful made in Portland new opera attracts diverse audiences, but will they return?


It. Coitus. Knocking boots, hooking up, going down, getting dirty, whatever you call it, however you do it, simple word and concept that has been the dominatrix of human history and imagination: sex. If you want to catch peoples attention sex sex sexy sex sexity sex: people go apeshit for it. Viva’s Holiday’s December 2nd  premiere at the Star Theater proved no exception for the undeniable salability of everyone’s favorite past time.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in 'Viva's Holiday.' Photo: Jessica Beer.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in ‘Viva’s Holiday.’ Photo: Jessica Beer.

A Portland stripper going home for the holidays to visit her conservative family, a quickie synopsis of Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s new opera based on the memoirs of local legend Viva Las Vegas, contains the overt sex appeal of strippers and stripping as a positive reality of someone’s existence. But even that would be no match for the cold-shower sterilizing power of traditionalist opera culture.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, 'Magic Gardens,' before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, ‘Magic Gardens,’ before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Fortunately! Viva’s Holiday premiered anything but traditionally. Star Theater, NW 6th and Burnside, a venue usually known for band music and liquored up dance parties, was busting with an audience that by their own admission had negligible previous opera attendance. Sponsored by feisty indie opera company Opera Theater Oregon and produced by Corbell’s own Cult of Orpheus, the opera sold out its three day run. First time ticket sales to new audience members is a pretty solid second-base in the art music world, first-base if they even know this music still exists and third-base for second time ticket sales, and Corbell lightly petted basically the whole damn venue.

Viva’s Holiday’s true genius is its intersectionality of subcultural interests, creating a diverse audience appeal: opera, new music, Viva Las Vegas, and Star Theater fans are not a homogenous group, far from it, but a broad social swath diverse in almost every variable conceivable. Fans of Magic Gardens, Viva Las Vegas’ memoir, were the most represented subculture premiere night showcasing the importance of story; few people have had to tell their puritanical father their life calling is stripping, although everyone has (or should) have the moment of self-proclamation declaring, to borrow a line from Helen Funston’s aria: “it’s my fucking life.”

Bergerette sang 500 year old French sex pop before the opera began.

Bergerette sang 500 year old French sex pop before the opera began.

Funston, who played Viva, initiated the evening of entertainment and pleasure with an astoundingly athletic pole-dancing routine set to Corbell’s original, beautiful Eastern European-esque string quartet featuring solo viola. . . although then the pacing of foreplay turned me off. Viva Las Vegas’ musical vocal trio Bergerette next performed French sex-pop from the 12th through 17th century followed by Corbell performing several of his own through-composed singer/songwriter guitar art songs. Both acts were enjoyable; Corbell’s art songs even successfully existed outside the frustratingly archaic aestheticism of many modern art songs, but their programmatic placement detracted from each act’s individual artistic viability and the opera itself. You fondle the opera, but then switch back to introductions?

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom), and Matt Storm (Brother) along with the pit orchestra all delivered a tantalizing performance. Beginning the libretto with a father’s joy in reuniting his family for the holidays, Corbell fit into a single-act six scene opera the turmoils of familial love and differences as Viva reveals to each family member, one by one, the truth.

Rising tensions between Viva and her sibling –  due to the brother’s sneaking suspicions that his sister is not working as a cocktail waitress – was written and delivered with hilarious honesty: a sibling’s concern is universally known to be most genuine when masked in sarcasm. Viva’s response in aria to her brother was a self-declaration that “it’s my fucking life” and poignantly, although passingly, addressed the brother’s chosen military service and the societal acceptance of violence over sex.

Parading her work clothes for her Mother’s feminine approval, Viva inadvertently asks that she not merely know about Viva’s profession, but be actively supportive. Believing she cannot support her daughter and husband simultaneously, the Mother demands “What if your Father found out?!” In answer, Viva sashayed into the living room visually announcing to the final family member, her father, her chosen profession: Bobby Jackson’s fire-n-brimstone response could be misinterpreted as the emotional climax, although it’s Viva’s unflinching resolve to be genuine that deserves our emotional reverberation.

Brother (Matt Storm) and Stripper (Helen Funston) debate in 'Viva's Holiday'. Photo: Jessica Beer.

Brother (Matt Storm) and Stripper (Helen Funston) debate in ‘Viva’s Holiday.’ Photo: Jessica Beer.

In telling a coming-of-age story not just about an individual, but also about the values of a city, Corbell could not have chosen better libretto material. The text was successfully set, with only several oddly dramatic instances falling on prepositions, to what Corbell describes as: “a composed, crafted work of music in the classical style, with an approachable musical palette.” He’s not wrong, although it seems he views the “approachable music palette” as exclusive to musical pastiche of operas gone by, ignoring the crucial relationship of approachability to emotional honesty. Anything is approachable when done genuinely.

Leaving the question: is it genuine to the emotions of a 21st century coming-of-age story to be heard alongside neo-romantic/classicism or misguidedly safe? Left to the impression of the musical composition, alone I’m unclear whether opera houses are going to be stealing third-base this inning. The local story and intersection of subcultural interests sold many first time tickets, but were those audience members titillated enough to attend an opera without the sex appeal?

The evening was a wild success: the story is beautiful, the venue choice was perfect, there was liquor, and the full-house audience obviously enjoyed themselves. I don’t want to detract from any of that, but will they consent to an opera not about a local hero with wild sex appeal? Corbell’s libretto setting of Viva Las Vegas’ experience told an important very human story, but were audience members gained for the human stories without sex appeal — for the operas about death, war, losing or gaining religion, failed relationships, love, growing up poor, addiction etc.? Will they continue – to steal emcee Leo Daedalus’s closing remark (based on Viva’s own signature line) of the night – to “support the motherfucking arts”?

Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    I would LOVE to hear from this show’s attendees re. Tristan’s thoughtful question/concern;

    “The local story and intersection of subcultural interests sold many first time tickets, but were those audience members titillated enough to attend an opera without the sex appeal?”

    In other words, was your attendance essentially a one-off or is this a welcome sign that y’all are gonna “support the motherfucking arts” in some kinda, you know, ongoing fashion?


  2. Maria Choban says:

    I attended opening night. I loved the supportive community spirit. The orchestra was not tight and it was out of tune too often. Would I pay $20 to attend the same opera next year? No. Would I pay $20 to attend a work shopped version with maybe Katie Taylor taking over re-writing/editing the libretto to include something more than what I felt was a litany of political statements with no emotional-dramatic arc? maybe. If someone like Max Voltage also stepped in to work with the arc of the music, perhaps with Corbell re-writing to include furious fast tempi/hocketting with, for example, Viva’s brother, adding snarl in arias like “It’s My Fucking Life” would it be enough for me to drop $20? Yes. Having said this, I did donate to the cause and I’m awfully glad I did. I’m sure Bizet’s scorcher, “Carmen,” was not his first attempt at opera. (When I look back at my own resurgence to the stage in 2008, I have come a loooong way ThankFuckingGod!) Keep your eye on Corbell. He’s brighter than most of us, has a temper and a backbone. He’ll come back fighting and better than ever, probably taking his first shot at me 🙂

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