WholeTone Opera was recently founded to support female composers and artists. The company’s inaugural production featuring composer Jillian Flexner’s La Zombiata, premiered to sold-out audiences on Valentine’s Day weekend in Somerville’s Davis Square Theater. Formerly Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater, the lively, 160-seat venue “has been updated with a brand new bar.”
In her manifesto, Flexner noted both the length and seriousness of the traditional opera genre as major obstacles to younger audiences and “non-traditional opera goers”. Zombiata is her response—a farcical retelling of Verdi’s La Traviata in three brief scenes. The story is re-cast in popular campy zombie idiom, replete with tired, obvious references to eating brains and craving human flesh. In Flexner’s plot, the zombies Christolpho and Philonia fall in love at a zombie ball, alarming her best friend, Xenobia. The lovers move to the forest in the second scene, where Christolpho leaves to find food. Xenobia finds Philonia alone, and convinces her to return to the zombie horde. Just as they leave, Christolpho arrives and tries to win Philonia back, but she leaves with Xenobia. Finally, Christolpho arrives at Xenobia’s lair and wins back Philonia’s affections. The score comprising a confusing mix influenced by Verdi, Mozart, and Flexner’s own extended harmonies, frequently struggles to accommodate an overly-verbose libretto.
WholeTone’s production, designed by J. Deschene, hums with the frenetic energy reminiscent of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Saturday’s audience, many of whom came dressed as zombies, signed waivers at the ticket booth and were handed ponchos upon entering the basement theater. The evening opened with a burlesque dance by Dahlia Strack (featuring zombie pasties), and proceeded with a 45-minute bloodbath, coating the theater with a substantial splatter of viscous red liquid and zombie viscera. One can get a flavor of the proceedings from this trailer.
In the midst of such bawdiness, the company managed to field a crisp chorus and show off the remarkable musical abilities of tenor (and BMInt contributor) Garry McLinn as Christolpho and soprano Nora Maynard as Philonia. Certainly, there were some failures in execution: Christine Duncan as Xenobia frequently prioritized the humor of the production over well-supported sound; conductor Ian Garvie found it difficult to coordinate the small but colorful orchestra with the chorus and soloists throughout.
But to focus on such details is to lose sight of the overwhelming fun of La Zombiata—blood-soaked, exuberant, and not half-dead.