in: News & Features

May 30, 2018

Fempowering Opera

by

Soprano Kathryn McKeller (T-Stop Pictures for OperaHub)

Nine divas from two centuries locked in the afterlife and pitted against one another will fight for the soul of opera—what couldn’t go right? OperaHub’s timely new play with music DIVAS is a female-powered world premiere written by Boston playwright Laura Neill and packed with true stories, extravagant fashion, and gorgeous music. Including 13 selections from Purcell to Puccini, DIVAS, both hilarious and poignant, showcases larger-than-life women whose voices reverberate across the centuries.

Boston’s self-described “opera punks” break out the ballgowns to ask, “What is the power of opera? Can women harness it to new ends?”  The piano-accompanied production runs June 21st -30th in the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts.

It seems an ideal moment for DIVAS. As a layered historical exploration of female theater leadership, the stories of these nine divas are full of emotional, physical, and financial mistreatment, the truths for many women in theater and opera over the ages. As the current public reckoning with sexual harassment and power abuse makes plain, this is the daily experience of contemporary women in the arts and beyond. You don’t have to be a diva.

The characters dress sumptuously and sing fabulously, and at first are wary of one another’s power. They must find common cause, however, in order to resist the oppressive force keeping them captive. Alongside contemporary questions about opera’s place in the world today, DIVAS poses: Can women work its power to produce new outcomes?

DIVAS tells of nine renowned singers representing 200 years of opera who, each in her own way, changed the world. Powerful musicians they were, thwarting the stigma attached to performers while working in the revolutionary revaluation of women’s place in society.

DIVAS informs that tradition of leadership with new research by fashion historian and visual artist Kathleen McDermott. Challenging current norms, DIVAS presents an all-female cast as well as female playwright, stage director, and music director. Thirteen musical numbers showcase the singers’ extensive classical training as self-amplified artists.

The team is local: This homegrown, exploratory collaboration encompasses a group of 10 performers and 10 additional artists. DIVAS was instigated by OperaHub general director Christie Lee Gibson (cast member) and artistic associate Adrienne Boris (stage direction) with McDermott, whose Diva Museum displays deep research into historical divas’ remarkable fashion, careers, and contributions to women’s social and economic empowerment. Laura Neill has fashioned a script that deftly weaves together their stories with the 13 musical numbers. Music director Patricia Au will appear as the Pianist along with eight additional singers, including Glorivy Arroyo (mezzo), Chelsea Beatty (soprano), Abigail Whitney Smith (soprano), Lindsay Conrad (soprano), Erin Anderson (soprano), Kathryn McKellar (soprano), Carrie Reid-Knox (mezzo), and Arielle Rogers (mezzo). The design/production team includes Drew Myers-Regulinski (costumes), Jeffrey Petersen (set and props), Emily Bearce (lighting), Julianne Mason (stage management), Jeila Irdmusa (marketing and pr), and Stephen Libby (graphics).

Responding to audiences looking for answers to important present-day issues, the production explores many levels of female leadership and agency.

Feminist subject matter and production. The script imaginatively builds on true stories of nine great singers who challenged social barriers and changed our world. It is framed by and intersects with issues facing women in our own time. Its female playwright, stage director, music director, and singer-performers have all shared leadership and agency in collaboratively creating this production.

Counteracting role disparity. Current opera and theater production favors male playwrights, directors, and role distribution. DIVAS is a deliberate strike against these norms with its creative team and performers. “Our research indicates that between men’s roles outnumbering women’s roles and there being three times as many women entering the field as performers, men are about four times more likely to be cast in a contemporary opera than women, even though the women who audition are, on average, overwhelmingly better-prepared,” says OperaHub General Director Christie Lee Gibson.

Performers co-create characters. For DIVAS, OperaHub invited locally based singers to help develop depictions of powerful and complex female artists. All nine DIVAS performers have shaped a richly detailed historical identity, reflecting female experiences and values. Mezzo Arielle Rogers plays historical diva Sissieretta Jones. “It’s an honor for me to give Jones a spotlight … researching her life makes me feel so much more connected to the role, but more importantly to her as a person. I want to do justice by her. Sissieretta Jones is one of the first African-American opera singers to pioneer in the music world, and she’s one of my biggest influences.”

Two years in the making: In 2017, OperaHub held monthly meetings with the cast and creative team. The group shared character research, explored connections among the historical divas, read excerpts from Laura Neill’s developing script, and chose repertoire from music sung by the divas. Costume designer Drew Myers-Regulinski integrated the divas’ high-fashion costumes. In January 2018 OperaHub held a staged reading for an invited audience to solicit feedback before the playwright’s final revisions.

Kathryn McKeller, Lindsay Conrad, and Arielle Rogers bring historical divas to life (T-Stop Pictures for OperaHub)

The development process culminates in eight performances:

Thursday June 21 at 7:30pm
Friday June 22 at 8pm
Saturday June 23 at 8pm
Sunday June 24 at 3pm
Wednesday June 27 at 7:30pm
Thursday June 28 at 7:30pm
Friday June 29 at 8pm
Saturday June 30 at 8pm

The Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont St., Boston MA 02116
Tickets: Boston Theater Scene
$25 general admission
$55 reserved center seating (limit 30 per performance)
$13 below age 30
$10 Arts EBT tickets (What is Arts EBT?)

OperaHub is participating in Boston Theater Scene’s Community Membership Initiative .

OperaHub is dedicated to creating high-quality unified musical / dramatic experiences through collaboration with local performing and design artists, focusing on innovation and experimentation in all aspects of opera production. We believe that opera performed in an intimate setting gains vibrancy and depth, and that affordable, accessible performance of opera should also be exciting, beautiful, and fresh. We take pride in presenting small nonstandard works and chamber arrangements of standard repertoire.

 

3 Comments

  1. OK, I’ll be civil. Eventually I read in the piece that this is being done by OperaHub, the people of that wonderful imaginative re-doing of Marschner’s Der Vampyr back in 2014. Yes, I will be going at least once to DIVAS (I did Der Vampyr twice); sorry I didn’t get to your Spanish-language productions. But, with an all-female crew–will men be welcome in the audience or should I sneak in in drag? I was thinking of G&S’s “Patience” and where in the future all the little boys and girls are going to come from? Someone could do a new take on Cimarosa’s “The Secret Marriage” wherein a “liberated” woman is actually secretly married–to a man–of all things.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — June 2, 2018 at 7:38 pm

  2. Eventually?? What about the second sentence?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 3, 2018 at 11:59 am

  3. From the producers’ standpoint, men are as welcome at this production as at any production of Suor Angelica, Dido and Aeneas, or Dialogues of the Carmelites, AND as welcome as women are at any given production of Crossing, Moby Dick, Everest, Curlew River/The Burning Fiery Furnace/Prodigal Son, From the House of the Dead, or Mark Rylance’s all-male Shakespeare outings.

    Comment by Christie Gibson — June 28, 2018 at 11:10 am

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