IN: Reviews

Heggie on AIDS’ Specter


(Paul Fortin photo)

Jake Heggie’s intimate chamber opera Three Decembers opened Friday night to an enthusiastic crowd at Boston Playwright’s Theater, where it runs through Sunday. This moving production has been developed by director Sharon Daniels,  founder of t.b.d. opera projects, from a successful August run in Providence and a Memorial Day semi-staged concert version in Jamaica Plain. Musical highlights of this weekend’s show include the Broadway-like ballad “Daybreak,” the sweet nostalgic duet “Father’s chair,” and Heggie’s occasional dissonant, jagged sections, especially when the specter of AIDS is invoked: one unseen character has it, and one leading character can’t decide how to deal with it.

Director Sharon Daniels is well known to Boston audiences from her five decades as a soprano, stage director, voice teacher, artistic and general director of the Opera Institute at Boston University. Renowned as a singing actress, she starred in the role of Rosabella opposite bass Georgio Tozzi in the Broadway revival and the PBS Great Performances telecast of The Most Happy Fella, and she was the cover for the role of Pat Nixon for the first world tour of Peter Sellars/Alice Goodman/John Adams’ Nixon in China.

A 90-minute opera in one act by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, Three Decembers premiered in 2008 under the working title, Last Acts in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center in Houston. Famed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, a longtime friend and collaborator of Heggie, created the role of Madeline Mitchell. Gene Scheer’s libretto is based on Terrence McNally’s unfinished play Some Christmas Letters, written in letter format for a New York City AIDS benefit in 1999. The composer considers the work to be his most autobiographical, writing for the premiere, “Composition can be a lonely business. But a theater composer by nature has an intense need to be connected with people. For me, collaboration is what delivers the most inspiration to compose. The alone time is terribly important, but the creative interaction invigorates my imagination like nothing else.” Heggie identifies with the plight of his characters, as he experienced a similar loss of his father: he was ten when his father, an Army doctor and amateur saxophone player who had served in Japan during World War II and was struggling with depression, left their house outside Columbus, Ohio, one day and vanished. They found him three days later in a field where he had shot himself. Jake’s mother, a nurse, had to break the news to him and his two older sisters.

The current version of Three Decembers features three singers, supported by a complex piano reduction of the original score for eleven instrumentalists. Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera co-commissioned this version in association with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. The sound world of the opera is closely tied to the mid-20th-century vocal works of Menotti, Bernstein, and Sondheim, with occasional brief quotations at poignant moments. Some elements date back to 1993, when the composer moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco: “I landed a job first at Cal Performances, and then at San Francisco Opera as the staff writer. I was in the public relations and marketing department and interacted with some of the world’s great singers on a daily basis. A few of them—first and foremost the amazing Frederica von Stade—became very good friends and inspired me to compose again, after an injury to my hand had caused me to give up the piano.”

Heggie’s association with the writing of Terrence McNally began in San Francisco as well:

Thanks to watching rehearsals for Conrad Susa and Philip Littell’s The Dangerous Liaisons, I became interested in collaborating with writers. For Frederica von Stade, she herself wrote the words (Paper Wings, On the Road to Christmas, and Winter Roses). In 1996, Lotfi Mansouri, who was then general director at San Francisco Opera, called me into his office and said, ‘I want you to write a new opera for the millennium. And I want to send you to New York to meet with Terrence McNally. I think you would make a great team.’ I met with Terrence in May 1996 when he was still working on the musical Ragtime and preparing his play Love! Valour! Compassion! to be made into a movie.” They collaborated for the next two years, developing the successful Dead Man Walking (2000) with Frederica von Stade at the center of the production. In 2004, Heggie began to work with composer and writer Gene Scheer. “When we met, I knew I’d found a collaborator for life. For seven years, I searched for the right circumstances to create a music theater piece based on Terrence’s short play Some Christmas Letters. I wanted it to be a chamber opera for three characters. Gene felt inspired by it and agreed to create a libretto based on the play; that is how Three Decembers came to be.

As the orchestra for this show, Boston pianist Regan Siglin was spectacular, full of subtlety and fire. She will work this summer at Tanglewood as a vocal coach and pianist for the Young Artists Vocal Program. Mezzo Leslie Jacobsen Kaye was magnetic in the role of the vain, self-centered Madeline Mitchell (mezzo-soprano), created for Frederica von Stade. The opera tells introduces Madeline, a stage actress, and her two adult children: Beatrice (soprano) and Charlie (baritone), who have not come to terms with their mother’s absorption with her career and resultant neglect of them. The scenes move through three decades of the AIDS crisis (1986, 1996 and 2006), with each short section recalling December events as the characters struggle to connect.

Dramatic soprano Erin Merceruio Nelson shone as the troubled, but faithful daughter Beatrice. Although based in Hartford, where she lives with her unfaithful husband and two young children, Beatrice travels throughout the opera, evolving as she struggles to come to terms with her past. Heggie writes her as a cross between a spinto soprano and a dramatic soprano, with high, sustained tones and long, sinuous phrases to express her frustrations. Nelson’s bright, flexible voice overpowered the small theater at times, bringing Beatrice a searing intensity and authenticity that outshone her mother.

(Paul Fortin photo)

Baritone Mitch FitzDaniel stole the show as Charlie, a gay man who survives the slow death of his partner, Burt. FitzDaniel sang a variety of styles with mastery, drawing the audience into the story more honestly than the other characters. His clarity of diction and preference for clear, focused tone brought every scene to life and provided much needed comic relief. The siblings had a meaningful connection onstage, heightening an already tense family situation into a more universal tale of characters struggling for power and identity.

In the first half of the opera (1986), siblings Charlie and Beatrice read from a copy of their mother’s annual Christmas letter. To show their geographic separation (Charlie in San Francisco and Beatrice in Hartford, Connecticut), they discussed the letter over the phone from the far edges of the stage. Heggie’s music swings from quiet poignancy to high drama as they sarcastically roast their mother’s writing style, interrupted by Madeline’s voice reminiscing about a Christmas in San Francisco with the children’s father, before they were born. Although the libretto can be relentlessly verbose, Heggie’s simple, mostly syllabic settings allow the drama to shine through.

Through highly contrasting melodies, Beatrice admits that she hardly remembers their father, but Charlie recognizes that at his age, their mother was already a widow. Each character is framed by musical motives, helping the audience to see those who are absent, invisible, and lost. Madeline and Beatrice were often asked to sing in unison, and these two powerhouse sopranos blended seamlessly even when their characters were in conflict. The design team (esp. costumer designer Neil Fortin and hair/makeup designer Rachel Padula Shufelt) drew visual connections between the two women through complementary costumes, coloring, and wigs.

As the long letter scene progresses, Madeline announced that she would be starring in her first Broadway musical, and mistakenly addressed Charlie’s partner, who is sick with AIDS, as Curt. Charlie became increasingly upset, but his rage ebbed into a heartbreaking lament. Beatrice’s final soliloquy revealed that she envies the love Charlie and Burt share.

The scene quickly dissolved into moments later the same year: we watch Beatrice assisting Madeline in the dressing room of her new show, Daybreak. After trying to praise her mother, Beatrice accuses her of being an absent parent, unsupportive of her children. Next, we join Beatrice on a visit to Charlie in San Francisco. Burt is not doing well, and the siblings reminisce on their childhood from the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge. Heggie’s turbulent music conjures the wind coming through the Golden Gate, embodying the turbulent feelings of hope for the future and the past.

The second half contrasts two scenes set in 1996, with a finale set in 2006. Charlie begins alone in his apartment, surrounded by packed and sealed boxes. He sings of his desire to write a few lines each day to honor Burt’s memory, and Madeline’s voice slowly emerges from the piano, singing the lullaby Charlie’s father used to sing to him, and which she sang to Burt when she visited.

In a scene reminiscent of the Hat Shop scene from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, Beatrice has come to assist her mother backstage at the Tonys. She tries on her mother’s clothes, sips from a glass of wine, and slowly unravels. The few words of spoken dialogue greatly intensify her sadness. Charlie rushes in, followed by Madeline enters, practicing an acceptance speech in which she acknowledges Charlie and Burt’s relationship and tragedy. The music builds to a boiling point when Madeline confesses a devastating family secret, devastating Charlie. The argument is interrupted, the dramatic scene unresolved.

Three Decembers ends strongly, with Beatrice and Charlie leading a memorial service for their mother at a Broadway theater. They sing both in conversation and in close harmony, but finally with a restraint and lower tessitura that brought the audience to tears. Operatic bravura was abandoned, and every word of Madeline’s last Christmas letter became clear. Madeline hauntingly joined in, describing the connection she felt through her work, and all three agreed: “All in all isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.”

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

The ensemble (Paul Fortin photo)

More on the composer:

Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, To Hell and Back, The End of the Affair, Out of Darkness, and the choral opera, The Radio Hour. The operas — most created with writers Terrence McNally and Gene Scheer – have been produced on five continents. Moby-Dick (Scheer) was telecast throughout the United States in 2013 as part of Great Performances’ 40th Season and released on DVD (EuroArts). Dead Man Walking (McNally) has received more than forty international productions and has been recorded twice (Atlantic Records and Virgin Classics). A Guggenheim Fellow, Heggie has served as a mentor for the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, and is a frequent guest artist at universities, conservatories and festivals throughout the USA and Canada. Recent commissions include Great Scott (McNally, 2015) for The Dallas Opera, starring Joyce DiDonato; songs for mezzo Jamie Barton and cellist Anne Martindale Williams (Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie Hall); an a cappella work for The King’s Singers based on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (2015); and a new opera based on It’s A Wonderful Life for Houston Grand Opera (2016) and San Francisco Opera (2018).

More on the theater:

The flexible, rectangular black box theater at Boston Playwright’s Theater is located at 949 Comm Avenue on the Boston University campus. They produce a full season of plays under a New England Association of Theatres Equity (“NEAT”) contract, and the next production will be Laughs in Spanish by Alexis Scheer, running February 21-March 3. Three Decembers concludes its run this Saturday and Sunday at 7:30pm.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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