Laura Neill’s “DIVAS”

The ensemble

Presented by OperaHub in collaboration with DIVA Museum
Written by Laura Neill
Produced and Stage Directed by Adrienne Boris
Music Directed and Collaborative Piano by Patricia Au
Starring Chelsea Beatty, Kathryn McKellar, Lindsay Conrad, Glorivy Arroyo, and Christie Lee Gibson

June 21 through 30, 2018
Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street, Boston
OperaHub on Facebook

Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight

(South End, Boston, Massachusetts) DIVAS is a new play by the writer and educator Laura Neill.  It is being performed for the rest of this week in a black box at the BCA.  On the Sunday I attended, the black box was very warm. The man sitting next to me repeatedly wiped the sweat trickling down his brow, and half the audience was skimming through their programs, while the other half fanned their perspiring faces.  The small theatre’s high temperature didn’t seem to bother most of the patrons, who had either greying or thoroughly whitened hair. OperaHub’s noble mission is “to present high-caliber, affordable, and accessible classical music to a wide community of music and art lovers,” but looking around the audience, it was easy to remember that the classical music community remains mostly white and older.

However, it’s not completely white, and the part of Sissieretta Jones demonstrated that slither of diversity within the classical music community.  Sometimes called S.J. during the opera, Madame Jones (1868-1933) was an African-American soprano born in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1894 at age 26, Madame Jones sang in an Dvořák’s all-African-American concert and became widely regarded as “The Greatest Singer of Her Race.”

Madame Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933) – opera singer, first Black person to perform at what is now Carnegie Hall.

Madame Jones’ life wasn’t easy.  None of the DIVAS’ lives were painless, but this play examines the extent to which a musician will suffer to sing and fight to live their art.  When the nine DIVAS first find themselves trapped together in an afterlife limbo, one of them implores “Why would God trap us?” I heard this as a question about more than the Buñuelesque chamber they couldn’t escape.  I heard the subtext, “Why would God trap us under the burden of our music,” a passion and creative path that became the filter of the pain the DIVAS endured. For example, Sophie Arnould (1740-1802) was a soprano born in Paris where she was educated by her mother amongst philosophers.  When Madame Arnould recited the monologue about her life, she recalled being alive during the French Revolution. She conveyed her fear when mobs chanted “Kill the King! Kill the opera singers!”

“Portrait of a Lady, called Sophie Arnould” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze,

This is a play that revives heroic herstories, which happens to also feature diamonds, lovers, gems and diva tantrums.

I must admit that leading up to the performance, I had low expectations for the music.  Last year I went to a comic opera – my first time ever attending opera – and I enjoyed neither the story’s humor nor the singers’ shrill recitations about silly romance.  So I carried reservations to the DIVAS performance, but my skepticism was quickly squashed.whose musical excerpts ranged from Verdi’s Sempre libera to Gluck’s J’ai perdu mon Erydice.  Each DIVA was wonderful, achieving olympic octaves with their voices, while soothing our ears with sweet songs.  It’s not a perfect play, but its music absolutely attenuates any of the minor flaws in this brave feminist play. Congrats to Laura Neill; gratitude for bringing to life this host of almost-forgotten opera singers!

Image #1:  Sophie Arnould, who had a twenty-year career as a Paris Opéra singing actress.
Image #2:  Sissieretta Jones, who moved to Rhode Island at age 7. Her grave went unmarked for 85 years.

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