Here’s a test: can you name the composer of “La bohème,” or “La traviata?” Second question: can you name any of the sopranos who sang Mimí or Violetta when those operas were fresh? As OperaHub’s world premiere production of Boston playwright Laura Neill’s new play with music “Divas” posits, you probably can’t. As we know, opera season lineups praise famous men year after year (that’s even mocked in the play’s prologue) and the composers’ names linger while those of the performers vanish into academic and Wikipedian obscurity. In “Divas,” nine renowned singers of the past step into the spotlight, using music they sang during their own lives to tell their stories and save themselves from oblivion in a touching, funny, and fascinating evening.
“Divas” was co-produced by OperaHub general director Christie Lee Gibson and Adrienne Boris, and developed collaboratively with the performers. The cast is all-female, and the production staff consists of mostly women; the characters are nine out of the twenty-six singers researched by fashion historian Kathleen McDermott for her “DIVA Museum.” The oldest is Sophie Arnould (1740-1802), the youngest Melrose’s own Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967).
Though most of the music comes from classic operas, it neatly folds in a Florence Price song, which is sung by Arielle Rogers as Sissieretta Jones, a black New England Conservatory-trained soprano who sang for four US presidents but died in poverty. “I learned it in the Elysian Fields,” she said to explain why she knew a song from after her time.
With the stage at floor level, music director Patricia Au at the piano, and the divas clad in Drew Myers-Regulinski’s period silhouettes, the small Plaza Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts gave the audience an up-close seat to arias typically heard from far away. Chelsea Beatty as Adelina Patti started things off with a tour de force “Sempre libera,” her immaculate high notes just on the right side of overwhelming.
Going forward, there wasn’t a weak link in the chain of songs, though special praise goes to Kathryn McKellar as Lina Cavalieri’s sweet and slightly sapphic “Si, mi chiamano Mimí,” the Meyerbeer duet by Glorivy Arroyo’s Pauline Viardot-García and Erin Anderson’s Jenny Lind, and Rogers’s three songs, the last of which was a devastating “When I am laid in earth” that brought all the divas together.
The conceit of prima donnas in purgatory is similar to that of Edwin Penhorwood’s comic opera “Too Many Sopranos,” though “Divas” goes for more pathos and less parody. In the quest to give each diva her turn at center stage, the play ran too long and dragged at times. Also, the script was too good at making the audience detest Jenny for the first three fourths of the play: not only was she irritatingly pious, she also was the only diva to defend Adelina’s insistence on calling Sissieretta “The Black Patti.” (This moniker annoyed the real Jones, even as she used it to publicize herself.) Jenny’s abrupt turn toward sisterhood with the other divas came out of nowhere.
The story was strongest when it drew more on the divas’ lives and less on the fan fiction, and it bears mentioning that those stories are by turns smoothed over and exaggerated to make for an appealing and relatable story for modern audiences. But that’s not a weakness: it worked for “Hamilton,” which successfully sparked a new generation’s interest in the Revolutionary era, and because such storytelling devices may help “Divas” to do the same for the forgotten women of opera, it deserves the bouquet. Make sure your phone is charged; you’ll want to dive down some Wikipedia rabbit holes on your way home.
At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Repeats June 27-30. www.operahub.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
An earlier version misspelled singer Arielle Rogers’s last name.