Sunday, May 31, 2015

Atlanta Opera Launches Series of "Discoveries" with Three Decembers

[Photo: Composer Jake Heggie (from]
With AO's new "Discoveries" series, General Director Tomer Zvulun plans to mix one unfamiliar piece each season among the two or three from the standard repertoire.  Those of us who seek out new or unfamiliar opera packed the mid-sized Alliance Theatre this weekend for the Atlanta premiere of Three Decembers.  The crowd seemed diverse and happy.    

Three Decembers was a wise choice.  The libretto by Gene Scheer, based on Terrence McNally's short script "Some Christmas Letters," gives us character types that fascinate us in any celebrity magazine or tell-all memoir, the Diva mom "Madeline Mitchell" and her long-neglected adult children.  Think Judy Garland and her kids by Sid Luft.    

The mother's connection to Broadway musicals gives opportunities for composer Jake Heggie to make affectionate use of Broadway genres.  The opening bars sound like they could be an overture from a Broadway show, ca. 1965; the Diva "Madeline Mitchell" sings an AABA ballad that rhymes.  A couple of pianos, some winds and percussion kept up waves of music that sustained sung dialogue for the ninety minutes of the show.  The music kicked up the emotions, joined characters separated in time and place, and brought thoughtful pieces to satisfying ends.  Yes, I did leave humming some motifs!

Before the show, we were treated to an on-stage conversation with composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.   When the moderator asked about the relation of an opera about a Broadway star to Broadway musicals, the two men told how they both have background in American musicals, which they described as musical theatre of a different style, as Wagner's style is different from Mozart's.  Heggie did say that he writes specifically for the trained, unamplified voices, which affords him different possibilities for effects.

After the talk, I had a chance to ask the librettist a question that's bothered me for decades:  Given the effects that Sondheim and others achieve with rhymed lyrics, why have American opera composers avoided rhyme?  Scheer said that he employed rhyme in one project, but only sparingly since, because "composers feel that it dictates too much of the form,"  Sondheim, he said, is such a genius that he can do anything.

I also got to tell composer Heggie the truth, that I've got mild PTSD from seeing his debut opera Dead Man Walking in Cincinnati a decade ago.  Even Friday night, I broke into tears trying to describe one of its scenes.

Even a story so simple as Three Decembers is elevated by music and the technical skill of singing it, made to be more than just the story itself.

No comments: