Mary's Strip Club spawned an opera. Well, sort of.
The band Bergerette first formed to celebrate the birthday of Vicki Keller, the club's owner. The trio, who describe their sound as "Medieval/renaissance French sex kitten pop," is composed of Pat Janowski, Eve Connell, and Portland's most famous stripper (and former WW columnist) Viva Las Vegas. It was through Bergerette that Las Vegas first worked with experimental composer Christopher Corbell, who went on to write Viva Holiday, an entire opera about her that's playing in Portland now.
Viva's Holiday dramatizes the first time Las Vegas (Helen Funston) went home to her religious family after staring her career as a stripper. The show bills it self as a sort of everyman's opera, and in many ways it is, as it combines the accessible art form of stripping and inaccessible art form of opera. It's also a righteously feminist opera with dirty jokes. We spoke with director Pat Janowski to learn more about how Portland's stripping opera came together.
WW: How did this all come together? It seems like most Christmas shows aren't usually operas and most opera aren't about strippers.
Pat Janowski: Christopher Corbell who is [the show's] creator and producer, he frequents the strip clubs as do many people in Portland. He has a lot of friends among the people who work there and he was inspired by Viva to write a couple of songs for our trio. I realized the first thing I said about Christopher is that he frequents strip clubs. For me, that's not a thing, but for a lot of people it is.
Can we talk about that kind of stigma? Because it seems like it's a really big part of the show.
I ran into someone the other day and she works in the foster system. She sees people in the sex industry who are being taken advantage of. That's a legitimate concern, I mean, no question, but I think any thinking person can differentiate. For Viva, this wasn't an out. She didn't need to do this.
Which is a huge part of her debates with her family in the opera.
I have the libretto with me: "The women where I work are beautiful and strong, they're artists, activists, feminists, women with power making $40 an hour." It's hard. I worked a five-hour shift at Mary's on my 50th birthday with Viva and it was the best birthday I've ever had. Being on stage is like the most comfortable place for me, so for me it was easier or more natural than for some people, I think. But I also think people want to take their clothes off. People want to be comfortable.
There's something about combining the art of stripping with opera, which is generally considered inaccessible.
Opera tickets are very expensive, young people think it's boring because they don't understand it, or maybe it is boring because these opera were composed a long time ago; it's the old white man's club. But think of La bohème: It's in the gutter. It's dirty; it's sexy; it's big feelings.
What's it like to direct an opera about someone you know on such a personal level?
I would say that's not really an issue except I know a lot more than what's actually in the opera, and I don't think that's bad. But I definitely do hero worship Viva like we do our closest friends. We think they're amazing and she is amazing.
Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., vivas-holiday.com. 9 pm Thurday-Saturday, Dec. 15-17. $25. 21+.