04 November 2015

Heggie’s ‘Great Scott’ at The Dallas Opera

Great DiDonat’:
Joyce in Dallas.
This and all photos by Karen Almond,
Courtesy of The Dallas Opera.

For the past few years, opera fans have been accorded privileged glimpses of the world backstage: rehearsals, clowning, and camaraderie among colleagues who, no matter how otherworldly their talents may seem, are just folks like us. Pictures, blog entries, and videos go viral on the Internet, and even the Met got into the act this season, with a clip of its Anna Bolena stars merrily shimmying away at their music stands during a rehearsal. This is all to the good, stimulating interest in new productions, connecting with fans, and perhaps making opera seem a bit more accessible to those who aren’t fans already.

One of the primary purveyors of this kind of veil-lifting has been Joyce DiDonato, who is in every way at the center of Jake Heggie’s new opera, Great Scott, which had its world premiere at The Dallas Opera on October 30. (I saw the second performance, November 1.) In Terrence McNally’s libretto, Act I is given over entirely to a rehearsal, during which scenes Joyce wears precisely the sorts of clothes she wears in real life, says precisely the sorts of things she says, and behaves pretty much as she does.

Her character, Arden Scott, has come back to her hometown for a gala benefit — as Joyce has done with the Kansas City Symphony — and there’s a question of singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl — as Joyce did at the World Series last year. Down to earth even when she’s all business, Arden interrupts an elaborate coloratura passage to exclaim, “This shit is hard!”

Life is a rehearsal.
The company, in Act I.

But home isn’t home to Arden any more (“She belongs to the world now,” observes one character, echoing something that I’ve been saying about Joyce for a while now), and after making music with her friends, Arden goes back to a hotel room “to fall asleep watching CNN”; Joyce has addressed loneliness on the road in this video blog. Arden is championing the work of an obscure bel canto composer, as Joyce very often does; and a living composer has written a new opera just for her, as Jake has done now.

What Arden — and Joyce — and Jake — do is indeed hard, and it can be wonderfully entertaining to watch and to listen to. When opera is at its best, though, what we take away from a performance has less to do with personality, and more to do with a particular artistic vision. It’s here that Great Scott falls short of the mark.

Don’t it make your brown eyes blue?
J-DiD and ARC-en-Ciel.

Make no mistake: Jake’s score is consistently ingratiating and often quite ingenious, and if you ever doubted that this man loves opera, doubt no longer. Here he pays homage to the operas of earlier times, with such treats as a nimble Rossinian septet (“Until the night”), a Rosenkavalier-style finale (augmented by a fourth voice and a skateboard), and page after page of Bellini and Donizetti pastiche that sounds more bel canto than the real thing. Above all, he’s written terrific roles for singers he clearly and justifiably loves. But the opera as a whole would prove more effective than it does, if only McNally’s libretto were more focused. I can’t say with certainty which of several themes is meant to be paramount, and none of those themes is fully developed despite ample opportunity within a meandering second act.

In the opera-within-an-opera, Arden plays a character who sacrifices herself: is this opera, Great Scott, supposed to be about the sacrifices a singer makes for her art? Is that why Arden stands alone like the Marschallin at the end? Or is Great Scott about the tension between classical and contemporary repertories — represented by the bel canto masterpiece and by the (unheard) new work? Is it about the tension between high and popular cultures — since the opera gala and the Super Bowl are playing out simultaneously in Act II? Is it about the vitality of American opera (not coincidentally the name of Arden’s hometown troupe)? Or about American opera’s capacity to embrace all music — to let our stages reflect the melting pot that is our nation?

Or are we supposed to take away a message about the relevance of the arts? After all, the new opera discussed here is Medea Refracted through the lens of “that mother who drowned her children in a car,” a subject from the headlines and one that makes Arden nervous. Meanwhile, one principal character complains that opera is less relevant than the music of Lady Gaga. And presumably for many people, there aren’t a lot of operas that hold more allure than a major sporting competition, the Super Bowl chief among them. (In Dallas, where I used to get beat up because I liked opera and didn’t like football, that contrast was especially meaningful.)

Bazzetti’s “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei” takes the stage.
Amor (Manuel Palazzo) hovers over Mayes, DiDonato, Pérez, and Rosel.

These questions had begun to trouble me fairly early in the opera, and more so as the afternoon went on, to the point where I found myself wondering whether the finale of the opera-within-the-opera might not turn out to be the finale of Great Scott. (Plot spoiler: it isn’t.) Nevertheless, my concerns didn’t diminish my enjoyment of a substantial number of pleasures.

First of these is the performance itself, expertly conducted by one of Jake’s most prominent exponents, Patrick Summers, for whom no style poses a challenge; and inhabited by singers whom I know quite well, onstage and off. Granted, I’ve only met baritone Nathan Gunn a couple of times, and fleetingly, but I’ve heard him many times. I’d never heard of tenor Rodell Rosel, though on this occasion he provided vocal clarity and a winning stage presence, game for the libretto’s (mostly easy) jokes at his character’s expense. All of these artists are good company, and Jake has tailored their roles to their measure.

Royals: DiDonato & von Stade.

Take the example of mezzo Frederica von Stade, the first champion of Jake’s music and one of the greatest treasures American opera has yielded. Jake knows her voice so well that, even at this (presumably!) late stage of her career, every note lies comfortably within its sweetest spot. She’s always been a radiant performer, she still is, and Jake wants us to know that. Her character, Winnie Flato, is at once Arden’s mentor and former piano teacher, a former singer, the general director of the hometown opera company, and the wife of the owner of the Super Bowl-bound football team. That’s quite a lot of responsibility for one person, no matter that she’s fictional.

As universally beloved in Opera World as Winnie is in her troupe, Flicka is a role model for today’s top American mezzos, Joyce included. So when Flicka and Joyce share an extended scene in Act I, the effect is poignant for reasons that have more to do with each woman’s stature, past and present, than with the roles they’re playing. And if you feel about these singers as I do (and chances are, you do), then what they’re actually singing is almost beside the point. Will this same scene prove equally moving when other singers — maybe even people I haven’t heard a thousand times — take these roles? If the libretto were stronger, I’d have fewer doubts. The music they sing is lovely and surely will be gratifying to other voices. I’ll have to hear them, though, before I can judge just how heavily this opera depends on this cast.

Pokerface? Paparazzi, Pappataci?
Burdette and Costanzo discuss Gaga.

A contrasting example, perhaps the only one, is that of Roane, the stage manager, sung here by the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. If ARC-en-Ciel weren’t already a star (with an awesome fan name), I’d describe this as a star-making role, arguably this opera’s second lead, a showcase for his formidable singing, acting, and, yes, his dancing. Roane is loved in the abstract — he’s the sweet guy who keeps things running — but, he observes, no one takes time to get to know him. He’s not like the others in this company, and that’s an excellent reason to write his role for countertenor; instantly, we start getting to know him, and we like him more as a result. Yet while ARC-en-C. performs the role brilliantly and looks irresistibly crushworthy while doing so, I can in honesty imagine other countertenors bringing their best to a part that allows so much rewarding characterization and audience sympathy, without ever a mention of “la vendetta del padre” or “la spada del nemico.”

McNally would have served the opera better by upending our expectations more often. Arden’s old flame is given little to do, none of it surprising, and little time to do it — but he’s baritone Nathan Gunn, so you’re glad to see him. The seconda donna here is Tatyana Bakst, a caricature of the ruthlessly ambitious soprano, sung spectacularly by Ailyn Pérez in a crowd-pleasing, Slobbovian-accented performance. Yet how much more interesting this character would have been if she weren’t so obviously and comically cutthroat! What if Tatyana were like — just an example here — the young Joyce DiDonato, a perfectly nice woman for whom destiny has bigger and unstoppable plans? Or what if Tatyana were more like Eve Harrington, whose wiles remain concealed until she goes in for the kill?

Show-stopper: Pérez sings the National Anthem.
Bets are now being taken that this will become an audition piece for sopranos everywhere.

The company’s baritone and tenor are here used primarily for comic relief, both roles played with a blessedly light touch. As the baritone, the mighty Michael Mayes spoofs the Barihunk phenomenon in his shirtless scenes, proving at one point that he can sing superbly while looking away from the conductor and flexing his back muscles. Both he and Rosel excel in the faux bel canto passages, and this was fun for me, because it’s a style of music I haven’t heard Mayes sing. (He has sung — and been transformed by — the lead in the first Heggie–McNally opera, Dead Man Walking.)

Really, the best and most knowing backstage humor is contained in choreographer John de los Santos’ little ballet sequence, which Arden rehearses perfunctorily; I can’t tell whether Rosa Dolorosa’s lack of a stage director is intended to be funny, or intended at all. (Surely this opera’s real stage director, Jack O’Brien, noticed the omission.) But an opportunity for comedy was lost in the person of bass Kevin Burdette, one of the funniest men I’ve seen onstage. He plays the dual role of the opera’s conductor and its long-dead composer, allowing him plenty of stentorian outpourings but no chance to unleash his comedic skills. He fields his assignments flawlessly, yet this is a case where I wish the role had been tailored more closely to the performer.

Burdette, as that obscure bel canto composer, rightly observes that Golden Age composers often wrote for specific singers. “They were singing new music, and they were afraid, too,” Bazzetti says, citing the example of Giuditta Pasta. The catch is that, while Donizetti wrote Anna Bolena and Bellini wrote Sonnambula and Norma for Pasta, nobody ever wrote an opera entitled A Week in the Life of Giuditta Pasta for her. Sure, elements of her personality may have crept into the score alongside passages that showed off her voice to its best advantage — but it was always possible to separate the singer from the role.

“Until the Night”: La mia testa fa bum-bum.
Burdette, Rosel, Costanzo, DiDonato, Mayes, Pérez, von Stade.

So maybe it’s useful to point out a few ways in which Arden Scott does not resemble Joyce DiDonato. Joyce is too young for the part, for starters: so far as I can tell, her career hasn’t yet reached its precise peak, much less the downward slope that Arden hasn’t quite brought herself to contemplate. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed since I first heard Joyce, it’s the certainty that she’s still got wonders up her sleeve, and that she’s only begun to dazzle us.

But perhaps this is an opera Joyce can carry forward with her, and it’s easy to see why she would want to. Arden certainly shares many of Joyce’s concerns, particularly her desire “to matter” — because it’s never been her ambition to sing prettily and go home. “I want to transform one life the way you transformed mine,” Arden tells Winnie, and that’s what Joyce has set out to do with every performance, every master class, every Facebook post, and every blog entry. It’s always about something and always aimed at somebody, whether it’s a fan or a young singer starting out, or anybody who has never heard a piece of music that she finds meaningful. “When I sing, I let the whole world know who I am,” Arden says. Bingo.

The music Jake has given her shows off his mastery of her sweet spots, her lyrical lines, her bel canto technique, a rainbow of her vocal colors, and an abundance of her warmth and humor. “This shit is hard,” but Joyce just keeps on singing, seemingly tireless. She’s onstage for most of three and a half hours, as aria follows scena follows another scena and an ensemble, with one mini-mad scene in Act I and a full-fledged bel canto mad scene in Act II, followed swiftly by that ghostly visitation. (Gena Rowlands in Opening Night had a firmer grip on reality than poor Arden does at times.)

After all the madness, it was the audience’s turn to go nuts, and rightly so. Together Joyce and Jake had given us a spectrum, a gamut, an Evening of Joyce, more Joyce than any other opera I’ve heard her sing, and what’s more, it seemed like (and nearly was) the Real Joyce, no matter what name her character takes. “She belongs to the world now,” and Great Scott shares her with us all, pretty much as we want her to be.

And yet “Art endures; voices do not,” McNally’s libretto insists. This first hearing of Great Scott did give us plenty of voices, voices at their admirable best. If Great Scott is to endure, there’s some tinkering yet to do, something that will put it within the reach of other voices. The words are the chief problem here. What we have right now is an entertainment. What we need is art — that matters. I can testify that every person involved in this opera has given us that before, and I’m certain they can give it to us again.

NOTE: After the performance, I told Jake I’m beginning to feel that he’s my alter-ego, writing for singers we both prize the music that I would write, if I possessed his gifts. And on an even more personal level, it was remarkable to find Jake and all these singers in the company where I first discovered opera. Who would have thought, when I started, that I’d wind up backstage, hugging so many people?

Read more!