“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.
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.
Why Opera, Doc?
Just because Viva’s life makes a compelling story doesn’t necessarily make it likely subject for opera, which today (despite Moonstruck) often has a reputation for stuffiness thanks to high ticket prices and other cultural shifts. Actually, Corbell initially “wasn’t sold on opera as an art form” until Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s 1976 landmark Einstein on the Beach “gave me the sense of what’s possible,” and once hosted a regular opera show on Astoria radio. He knew that opera had long boasted characters not so far from Viva —from Carmen to Tosca to Beethoven’s Leonora and even earlier figures, strong women who were sometimes from society’s depths, even courtesans.
“I wasn’t tempted to use musical theater or chamber music,” he says. “The vocal line and texture drove the project. It needs to have singing as the prime cause — the essence of what it is. I came to realize the difference between opera and musical theater: When the aria breaks out in opera, it’s all about poetry, and when it breaks out in musical theater, it’s all about personality. Obviously there are lots of exceptions, like Sondheim. In opera, it’s about time being suspended in this moment of poetry, but also usually the character disappearing into their emotions.
“What’s drawn me to opera and song is the poetic, the marriage of text and music. I love going to chamber music and to poetry readings, but I feel like there’s an extra dimension that emerges when words and music fuse in song. Opera brings even more with acting, plot arc, and staging. In a sense, opera is the original multimedia art form, but its ground is still that lyrical, poetic space.”
That’s surely why so many composers have yearned to create opera, but for every Mozart or Verdi or even Philip Glass who were natural theater composers, plenty tried and failed, whether because opera wasn’t their natural inclination or because of difficulty of financing and logistics (ask Portland’s David Schiff, who wrote a critically and popularly acclaimed opera early in his career and has struggled ever since to get another one produced). Beethoven himself struggled for years with Leonora, er, Fidelio.
So Corbell started small, and not just in choosing a short (hour long), one-act opera confined to two rooms of a house. “When I started in earnest I took up studies in art-song, setting text to music in a through-composed approach, which was a departure from the popular verse-chorus songwriting I’d always done,” he explains. “I think anyone who wants to write opera should start writing art songs, learning how to write for voices in a more organic, unfolding way.”
He views opera as relevant to the 21st century, and suited to stories about people who aren’t traditionally featured on operatic stages. “We can adopt and liberate what were once aristocratic artistic languages — classical form and counterpoint, sonnets, tragedy — and tell our own stories with them,” insists Corbell, a longtime advocate of democratizing the too-often elitist classical music field. “Here’s a story with these archetypal questions — the politics of sex work, the nature of femininity — and I could use traditional forms to explore these modern feelings.” Rejecting the ancient Aristotelian notion that art should focus on noble families, “nobility’s in the core of these characters,” no matter their class or income status, he says. “That’s the modern world.”
But Viva’s Holiday is neither a violent romantic extravaganza nor a pontification on feminism or art nor even a lurid look into old Portland’s sexy, seamy side. It’s a mostly quiet, touching, intimate family drama that doesn’t even take place here, but rather in a midwestern minister’s home. Corbell selected a single episode from the book: Viva’s first visit home after establishing her new identity as the stripper artist, and the other three characters are her mom, dad, and brother.
An Opera is Born
Viva Las Vegas fell in love with opera before she was Viva Las Vegas, as a teenager. In her memoir, she recalls seeing opera in Germany where it was inexpensive, fresh and sexy. She sang Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night aria in college, and sang it again a couple of years ago with Corbell and a flock of other Classical Revolutionaries at the Star Theater.
The two also worked together when Corbell wrote a few songs for her “500-year-old French sex pop” trio, Bergerette, which included Pat Janowski, the veteran Portland actor (Post5 Theater, Grimm), musician (Opera Theater Oregon, director of Portland’s Flash Choir) and writer who signed on as stage director for Viva’s Holiday.
After reading Magic Gardens, Corbell approached Viva with a proposal to turn part of it into an opera. He wrote a synopsis, then “I would give her drafts; she would give me feedback,” he remembers. “I gave her veto power if she felt like it was going in a direction she didn’t believe in.“
She took his first draft of the story of her younger self going home for the holidays in the ‘90s when she went home to Minnesota for the holidays in 2012. She sent Corbell a panorama photo of the family living room decked out for the holidays. “That made it so much more real,” he says. Periodically, they’d chat to revise and add new material and detail as needed, and they’re co-credited for the libretto.
Surprisingly, Corbell chose not to set his story in a Portland strip joint, or to deal with other seemingly more dramatic episodes in Viva’s life, like her battle with breast cancer, but rather that single episode when she returns to Duluth and confronts her family with her new life in Portland.
“It’s a story about family dynamics: the child’s need to individuate and become her true self and her parents’ attachment to her,” says music director Erica Melton from Opera Theater Oregon, which is fiscal sponsor of Viva’s Holiday. “Audiences might expect something kitschy, jokey, funny and there are moments like that, but there’s a real depth to the emotional landscape Christopher has created that will surprise a lot of people. You get a sense of each character’s inner monologue, where everybody is coming from, so you can empathize with all of them.”
Corbell’s music suits the intimate subject matter. “It is a composed, crafted work of music in the classical style, with an approachable musical palette,” he wrote in a press release, “not a rock-opera, ironic mock-opera, or vaudeville piece, nor an abstruse academic construction.” Melton calls the music “tonal and accessible,” with influences from composers as ancient as Sweelinck through Mozart (Viva’s favorite), Stravinsky, Faure and others — sometimes, as in a three part aria in Scene 2, all in the same segment, as the conversation shifts from intellectual reasoning to sensuous passion to triumphant declaration. “It really flows well from one moment to the next,” Melton says.
Corbell’s original voice shines through most in the interludes and especially a setting of Viva’s father’s favorite hymn tune “Now the Green Blade Rises” (also known in a different version as the carol “Sing we now of Christmas”) that’s doubly appropriate to the story. “There’s a real elegance and attention to beauty that’s a hallmark of his style” in Corbell’s guitar music and early music influenced-sonnets for Bergerette. Parts of the opera remind me of Bernstein’s 1950s family drama Trouble in Tahiti and some of the music of Giancarlo Menotti.
Though a serious, mostly self-taught student of classical music, Corbell also benefited from his rock and folk background. “Coming from having played in bands and as a solo singer songwriter, I know what it’s like to go onstage singing a three minute song and judging whether the audience is getting bored,” he explains. “It gives you a perspective on tempo and engagement that also applies to larger forms like opera. A lot of that transfers when you’ve been a performer on stage. How’s the audience going to relate to this moment? What are they going to be thinking and doing and feeling in this section? There are longer arias that push three or four minutes but even those arias change midway though [to] keep people engaged.”
This emphasis on audience experience — not common enough in contemporary classical composition — is a hallmark of both Corbell and OTO’s philosophy. “When I was first writing songs in early ’90s, like others of my generation, I wrote a lot of dark and depressing shit that was difficult to listen to,” he recalls. “I had a rockabilly band later on the coast and I wanted to give people a dance. Maybe I wasn’t saying much artistically but it was great to be in a band, part of community and exuberant about performance. Both of those things are part of me as a composer. I want to find the truth, and some truths are tragic and hard. But I also want the journey to be pleasurable.”
Expanding the Audience
That community connection isn’t only important to Corbell. His Cult of Orpheus publishing/production company is the main sponsor, but he also enlisted help from another Portland indie classical institution: Opera Theater Oregon, which is co-sponsoring Viva. “I’m really excited! It’s the first time OTO’s tried anything like this,” says artistic director Katie Taylor. “Our current reboot is partly about figuring out the best way to involve like-minded people in the work of the company — Viva is right up our alley.”
This partnership of two of Oregon’s most vital indie classical institution (although Corbell no longer runs CRPDX, he’s still involved in the organization and the production involves musicians associated with both groups) represents a signal moment of culmination in Portland’s burgeoning alt classical scene. Both groups have long strived to broaden classical music beyond elite insiders and bring its beauty to a wider community. Despite its classical roots, Viva’s Holiday is emphatically not just for classical music fans or even only for opera buffs. Corbell and Melton expect the kind of broad audiences they see at indie classical events like CRPDX jams and OTO productions.
“There’s a whole host of the underground community who knows Viva from Dante’s, Lucky Devil, and other clubs,” he says. “Some people in the classical music world think everyone who doesn’t have season passes to the opera are heathens in the hills, but a lot of these people do like opera and classical music. The immediacy and beauty of the story are going to appeal to people who don’t think they’ll like opera.”
That broader audience is precisely what Opera Theater Oregon has pursued for a decade. “That’s another reason OTO took it on,” says Melton. “It cross-pollinates the audience, from the music lovers, strip dancing community, the people who go to The Late Now, Classical Revolution…” She thinks the opera’s relatively short length, subject matter, and accessible musical language make it appealing to a wide range of listeners. “Length is a barrier” to a lot of today’s listeners, she says, and Viva’s Holiday “has an almost TV sensibility in the way scenes quickly switch from one pair of characters to another pair talking in a another room. You’re not waiting for something to happen over long, drawn out period. It’s more modern sensibility.”
Their choice of venue — the Star Theater, better known as home for cabaret and rock shows — better suits the younger, more diverse audience Viva will draw. “It’s an intimate experience,” she says. Despite the technical challenges of not producing in a fully equipped hall, “Up close and personal is always vastly preferable to a really large hall,” which also allows audience members to drink a beer, eat dinner, and pay affordable ticket prices — “more like going to a comedy club or rock show than a more formal classical concert.” And even though the singers aren’t singing in a heavy bel canto style that can sound pretentious (and not true to the opera’s characters), the production includes English supertitles so the audience can “relax a little and not have to worry about catching every word,” Melton explains.
“It’s intersecting all these different communities — classical music, theater, opera and vocal music, a wide array of people who know Viva, like strippers, people who hung out at [legendary Portland club] Satyricon, the old Portland underground community,” Corbell marvels. “So many tendrils of this project are going out to so many parts of Portland culture. It’s humbling to know project is pulling in energy from all these sources.
“This is my dream of what being an artist is supposed to be. Consumerism makes everything a product. I’ve learned in this community that art is not a product of culture, it’s the fabric of culture. It feels a lot like Portland gave birth to this opera.”
That’s literally true in that some of the $18,000-$20,000 budget (still minuscule compared to most operas) comes from ticket sales and contributions. Ticket revenue will only cover a little more than half the expenses. “Part of this has been an experiment in how to fund a project of this scope,” Corbell acknowledges. “Having run a nonprofit with CRPDX, I got good insight into the way nonprofits have been funded, from Portland opera to OTO, and I feel like what I’m doing is different. We do have a nonprofit partner and that’s helped but most of it is funded through ticket sales. If I can get other companies to produce it and earn royalties, maybe selling shares as opposed to donations … if I can get a production like this to make money and investors get paid back, that would be a more sustainable way to fund art than the lottery of grants and relying on donations.
“It’s hard for me as artist to ask for donations,” he continues. “It puts me in a begging mindset. I like the idea of patrons of the arts but maybe it’s too taken for granted in the classical world that you’re going to have to find people to donate funds and grants. What we have is this system where highly credentialed, privileged people in the arts can funnel money to other highly privileged people in the arts. Public money coming from everybody is funneled to a highly credentialed cartel. The maverick part of me is not just about ‘what do I need to make my art?’ I think it’s possible to raise funds if what you’re doing is relevant to the community. So this project has been a test of that entrepreneurial arts model.” Or as Viva would say, thank you for supporting the arts.
“There’s a lot of risk in this production,” he acknowledges, “but I’d rather have it put me in debt than not produce an opera. What’s the price tag on life having beauty, passion, meaning, and community? I think waiting for funding is a way to never make art, and if you’re not stretching your resources to the breaking point, maybe you’re a bourgeois dabbler. Even if it doesn’t work, I will have avoided having to fill out any paperwork!”
Dealing with nonmusical issues like funding, publicity, hiring musicians, and so on might not appeal to some composers, but for Corbell, it’s part of what makes opera so fulfilling. “Composers have this fantasy that you send your score somewhere and someone will make you famous. It doesn’t work that way. You have to get into the fray. One thing I’m debating is do I want to keep producing my own operas? I’m leaning toward producing new works. I like the holistic experience. I don’t want to be someone who just sits in my parlor and writes. The engagement with the community is what makes it vital. It’s where the energy is.“
Opera can never be a one man-show, and Corbell has high praise for his collaborators Janowski (“awesome”) and Melton. “She’s been a dream come true,” he says. “Viva wouldn’t have happened without Erica. She’s such a rare and valuable resource to our musical community here. She’s put in so much time with singers and instrumentalists, and she has such a great quality of trust and respect with all the people she’s working with.” He already has a couple of other ideas for his next opera.
Like Corbell, Melton is also optimistic about indie opera’s future in Portland. “I’m encouraged by the smaller groups that seem to be sprouting up and I hope there’ll be room for that here. I like Portland Opera Guild’s interest in bringing in other ‘opera-tunities’ (as they call them) around town and regionally. Opera continues to be an extremely expensive art form, so I do worry. The most important thing is that it’s compelling theater. Our theater has to be highly engaging and constantly pushing the boundaries of what theater can do and what will make a show compelling to a modern audience. On a smaller scale like ours, it’s easier to do that, so it’s extremely important that small companies can experiment and flourish in the 21st century.”
As for Viva’s Holiday, it too may have a future. Corbell is considering marketing it to other small opera companies. “It’s doable on a small budget and has a lot to offer audiences outside of Portland,” he says. “I’m also thinking about renewing it here. Maybe we could join the ranks of those regular holiday shows [The Nutcracker, Messiah, et al] and have our annual Portland stripper opera!”
Viva’s Holiday: An Opera in One Act with special guest performances (including a pre-show pole dance with music by Corbell) runs Dec. 2, 3, and 4, 2015, at 9 pm at Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave, Portland. $20 General Admission • 21 and over.
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