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For Valentine’s Day, a comic zombie opera: ‘La Zombiata’

Garry McLinn (left) plays “Cristolpho” and Nora Maynard plays Philonia during a rehearsal for “La Zombiata,” a zombie opera, at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Garry McLinn (left) plays “Cristolpho” and Nora Maynard plays Philonia during a rehearsal for “La Zombiata,” a zombie opera, at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville.

SOMERVILLE — Christolpho is a caring zombie, with a soft spot for romance in his no-longer-beating heart. He is mingling at a bloody soiree of waltzing dead in a Parisian penthouse when he lurches into the walking corpse of the lovely Philonia, who is as hungry for the brains of the living as Christolpho is for love of the dead.

Human emotions stir in this undead pair, setting off a gory spree of carnage when the other zombies, led by Xenobia, huntress of humans, disapprove of their post-mortal courtship.

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Thus begins “La Zombiata,” a comedic sendup of operatic tropes and traditional notions of romantic love, produced by WholeTone Opera and set to open Valentine’s Day weekend for three shows at the Davis Square Theatre. It is based loosely on “La Traviata,” with several considerable differences. Verdi’s opera ends with his heroine’s death; “La Zombiata” begins shortly after Philonia becomes undead. And though the librettos for “La Zombiata” and “La Traviata” are both rife with commentary on their respective eras’ societal attitudes, only one features frequent projectile bloodletting.

And then there’s this: All that gore would have sent a 19th-century audience screaming to the exits. Zombies are now a staple of popular culture, and Rachel Stevens, production manager of “La Zombiata,” is counting on that to draw crowds in.

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“It’s really accessible for people who haven’t seen opera before,” Stevens, of Newton, said last week. “We’re hoping that a bunch of people who like zombies are going.”

It is clear that Stevens and artistic director Nora Maynard, who plays Philonia, really like zombies. Both are horror fans who in mock-serious detail can describe how they would survive a real-life zombie apocalypse (Stevens would grab a horse from a stable in Concord and ride off to rural Vermont; Maynard would join a “staunch resistance.”). They savor the words “brains,” “projectile blood,” and “chain saw,” the way Verdi might have lingered over “squillo” and “morbidezza.” They lovingly describe the work of Kevin Tracy, the “blood technician” who masterminded a “splash zone” for Saturday’s show: Viewers will be offered ponchos, and will be splattered throughout the hourlong production by bursts of fake blood.

“We’re going to do some serious getting-blood-on-people during that show,” Stevens said.

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Unlike many sagas of the living dead, “La Zombiata” is not about a human resistance, said Maynard, a native of Illinois who has taught and performed in the Boston area since 2009. Humans in “La Zombiata” mainly play the role of food; there is only one living character. Nor does the opera really explain how this zombie apocalypse came to pass. Instead, most of the action takes place among various sub-strata of undead society.

“There are some zombies there who are pretty mindless and they don’t speak,” Stevens explained. “Then there’s the zombie horde, who can be bossed around but are focused on brains. Then there are the three main characters, and they are doing most of the thinking. It depends on their level of deadness.”

When Christolpho falls in love, he stops wanting to eat, though Philonia remains somewhat ravenous. (“Brains and love are not mutually exclusive,” Stevens said.) The relationship amounts to a rebellion against zombie culture that raises the ire of Xenobia, and with her, the horde.

“Christolpho and Philonia are being ostracized for turning too human,” Maynard said.

New York-based composer Jillian Flexner’s “La Zombiata,” performed by an eight-piece orchestra, occasionally quotes grand opera, albeit in humorous ways. But it is still opera, and that requires some divergence from the zombie canon.

Though they stagger and shamble, the zombies of “La Zombiata” have not lost the art of elocution.

“I want it to sound like singing,” Maynard said. “In the interest of keeping it accessible.”

And though the zombies are covered with wounds and sores, they are not missing critical body parts.

“We ended up being sexier zombies than I thought we would be, and that ended up being fun,” Maynard said.

Maynard and Stevens hope the show, which WholeTone Opera funded in part through a crowd-sourcing campaign, becomes an established Valentine’s Day tradition in Somerville. Stevens is looking for other ways to adapt opera to characters modern audiences might find interesting.

“Maybe a vampire opera,” she mused.

“I want to do a werewolf opera,” Maynard said.

At this point, their talk turned back to the task of preparing for the shows. And more fun to be had with the language of zombies.

“When this interview is over,” Stevens said, “I have to pick up a corpse.”

La Zombiata

At Davis Square Theatre, Somerville, Feb. 12-14. www.wholetoneopera.com

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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