helen funston

‘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.”


‘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.