SAN DIEGO – Composer Jake Heggie is the darling of American opera. His career began in San Francisco in 2000 with the powerful and often mounted Dead Man Walking, set to Terrence McNally’s libretto and staring the beloved mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade. Other works for which he’s known include Moby-Dick, Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, Out of Darkness, and the forthcoming It’s a Wonderful Life.
McNally, a Broadway playwright of legendary accomplishments, re-entered Heggie’s orbit with his original libretto to the new Great Scott, receiving its West Coast premiere here. Jack O’Brien, an equally starry stage director, joined the team early on, a rare instance of teamwork where the director got involved in the actual creation of the work from the onset.
For centuries audiences and critics have cringed at the laughable plots inflicted on them in the opera house. Let’s face it, as anthropologists and literary scholars have told us, there are really only a very few basic stories to be told. So librettists have given themselves hernias inventing the most preposterous situations and human relationships (and don’t forget the gods and cupids) to justify the need to fill seats each season with new works to delight the ear and eye. Plots also incorporated new stagecraft technology emerging in every generation.
Great Scott is a grand modern send-up of every imaginable operatic cliché and tradition. It premiered only last October in Dallas. Those who hate opera for all the right reasons who nevertheless find themselves in the audience will chuckle at the willingness of the creators to poke sticks at themselves and all the other denizens of this specialized world of peculiarly talented and opinionated folk. The faithful opera lovers in the crowd will be vastly entertained by the cascade of in-jokes and musical-historical references that spice up both the book and the score in practically every measure. It’s a hoot and a half, held together magnificently by conductor Joseph Mechavich.
Basic premise is: World-renowned diva Arden Scott (Kate Aldrich) returns to her Texas hometown, recruited by Winnie Flato (Frederica von Stade), doyenne of the American Opera and Arden’s early music teacher and muse, to present the world premiere of a never performed 1835 confection of silly plot and gorgeous music in the then-dominant bel canto style by the (fictitious) composer Vittorio Bazzetti. Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei can only summon up memories of Gilda Radner’s inane character Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live. Some idiot, however, has obliviously scheduled opening night at the same time as the Super Bowl, where the hometown Grizzlies have divided the attention away from Ms. Scott’s appearance.
The opera star meets her foil in the new up-and-coming soprano Tatyana Bakst (Joyce El-Khoury), from some post-Soviet land, who is in love with the U.S. of A. and seeks to conquer hearts and souls in her quest for fame and fortune. She and her busy off-stage agent are also conspiring to steal all of Arden Scott’s big roles from her.
Among the cast we also have the baritone Wendell Swann (Michael Mayes) who, in another swipe at one of contemporary opera’s bag of tricks, appears half-naked to show off his hunky torso; and the girthy tenor Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson); the aging gay conductor Eric Gold (bass-baritone Philip Skinner, who also reappears in the second act as Bazzetti’s ghost); the campy stage manager Roane Heckle (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo); and the diva’s old lover Sid Taylor (Nathan Gunn), now a successful architect committed to redesigning their hometown. Sid, now divorced, as is Arden Scott, has an adorable little son Tommy (Ezra Dewey), who has a single spoken line in the bel canto opera, a child’s warning that Vesuvius is about to explode.
Satirizing foibles and conventions
Great Scott draws on a rich tradition of composers writing about their own art. Structurally it has much in common with the two-act Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, which opens backstage before the performance of a new opera with a sublime classical subject, and then in act two proceeds with the opera interrupta by unexpected goings-on emanating from the mundane everyday world. In his late opera Capriccio Strauss also addressed the delicate dance between music and words that has gone on perpetually since the dawn of art. Mozart himself, in the short chamber piece The Impresario, satirized the foibles and conventions of the opera world of his day.
Each of these characters has their moments of glory. Among the most luscious – and ludicrous too, but of course that’s why we go into the theater carrying our suspension of disbelief – are the excerpts from “Bazzetti’s” opera, giving the Scott role many opportunities for rich, molten chocolate vocalism. There’s also a highpoint with the peripatetic opera stars playing the game “I Can’t Possibly,” where in quick repartee they have to use some marginally appropriate verb meaning “to sing” with a role and city, e.g., “I’m trilling Traviata in Toronto.” They romp through the whole alphabet from A to Z on a whirlwind joyride for any opera fan.
The countertenor Roane (this unusual voice type has made a huge comeback in modern opera and there are quite a few excellent ones around) has a wonderful scene playing off the bel canto-loving conductor Eric in which he defends the new, the future, the sounds we have never heard, as opposed to revivals of old “shit” (yes, that esoteric musicological term is used more than once). He accompanies his argument with the latest in hip-hop gestures. “Opera isn’t new,” he grouses. “It’s over.”
And the upstart La Bakst is not too proud – as La Scott was – to open the Super Bowl with the national anthem, seeing this as a brilliant occasion at which she can introduce her talents to the American people. Our culture has undergone some serious self-examination surrounding the anthem, with ear-splitting butcherings from Roseanne Barr to jazz- and pop-inflections by any number of Black artists, and a Spanish-language version, all of which have offended certain über-patriotic elements among us. Bakst’s foreign-accented, way over-the-top operatic embellishment, backed by a four-man crew of doo-wopping highway patrolmen and barely even recognizable amongst all the trills and decorations, has to be one of opera’s funniest moments ever.
No one dies
Great Scott is definitely comedic – no one dies. But along the way we do get serious reflections on the nature of art, on risk-taking as a critical element in any worthy endeavor, on the evanescence of love, life and careers, on the empty feeling of fame, on the often underappreciated invisible workers, and on the conflict over civic values such as sports vs. culture.
Arden says she wants to “matter” to someone, and in a work that’s so full of wordplay it’s not hard to deduce that she wants to be a “mater” (that is, a mate and a mother) to someone – and there are little Tommy and his steady, loyal dad Sid waiting for her to make that commitment. The casting of Nathan Gunn as Sid, one of the biggest names in opera today, was a luxury boon to this production, as it’s actually not that big a role. He may not turn out to be such a catch, however; in his big scene with Arden he acts like quite the self-important cad.
SDO may be the only major American company to provide the plot synopsis in the printed program in both English and Spanish. The eighth-largest city in the U.S. sits just a few short miles from the Mexican border. That program publishes the company’s Mission Statement (“…to deliver…accessible programs to diverse audiences…”), Vision Statement (“…promoting diversified programming…”) and Core Values Statement (“…new models of opera…deep commitment to the community…nimble adaptation to the changing marketplace…community involvement coupled with relevant programming will build the audience of the future.”
Yet on-stage the cast and chorus looked extremely pale, with a paucity of color barely excusable in this day and age. Only three (white) principal singers from the Dallas production were re-hired for SDO, leaving the field wide open for the diversity SDO aspires to. It’s not just “politically correct,” it’s socially responsible.
Some Ph.D. candidate one day will write a scholarly dissertation on all the musicological references and jokes in the highly self-referential opera-within-an-opera Great Scott, but you don’t need to be an aficionado to enjoy it. It works on enough different levels simultaneously to entertain, delight, and inspire.
Great Scott will have a radio broadcast on Sat., May 14 at 8 pm on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM (97.7 FM Calexico ) and online at www.kpbs.org.
Remaining performances are Tues., May 10 and Fri., May 13 at 7 pm, and Sun., May 15 at 2 pm.
Tickets can be purchased by calling (619) 533-7000 or online at www.sdopera.org.
A 30-minute informative pre-opera lecture takes place in the Civic Theatre one hour prior to every performance, free to all ticket holders.
The San Diego Civic Theatre is located at 1100 Third Avenue @ B Street, Downtown San Diego.