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Monday, July 5, 2010

Marc Shulgold's Fun Facts on THREE DECEMBERS

Today we bring you more "fun facts" from Marc Shulgold, former music critic of the Rocky Mountain News, focusing on Three Decembers by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.

  • Now an internationally respected opera and art-song composer, Jake Heggie began his composing career in an unusual way – as a member of the Public Relations Department at San Francisco Opera. It was there that he had befriended famed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who encouraged him to write songs for her – ironically, it was von Stade who, years later, would bid farewell to the opera stage singing Maddy in Heggie's Three Decembers.
  • This three-player chamber opera has undergone a number of transformations and name changes. It began as a 14-page play by Terrence McNally, presented as part of “A Joyous Family Christmas” AIDS benefit concert in New York's St. Bartholomew's Church in December, 1999. The playwright's contribution was Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too), performed by celebrated actors Betty Buckley, Victor Garber, Julie Harris and Cherry Jones. When Houston Grand Opera commissioned Heggie to create a chamber opera for HGO's 2007-08 season, he teamed with Gene Scheer to fashion a libretto. Based on McNally's playlet, the opera was given the working title Last Acts and starred von Stade. After its Houston premiere in Feb., 2008, the piece was re-named Three Decembers.
  • Von Stade was intimately involved in the creation of the opera, which at first was envisioned by the creative team as a musical. The mezzo directed Heggie and Scheer to rethink it as an opera. “She was right, and instantly it fell into place,” Heggie later remarked.
  • Heggie and McNally's most successful partnership came in the much-acclaimed (and much-performed) opera Dead Man Walking (premiered in 2000). Local opera-lovers may remember another collaboration between the two: At the Statue of Venus, a “scene for soprano and piano” with text by McNally that was commissioned by Opera Colorado for the 2005 opening of the Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The piece was to be sung by Renée Fleming, but she withdrew from the premiere. Instead it was premiered by Kristin Clayton (the original Bea in Three Decembers) with Heggie accompanying at the keyboard.
  • Three Decembers traces three decades in the relationships between Maddy, a Broadway star whose husband had died years earlier, and her adult children, Bea, a married woman, and Charlie, a gay man dealing with the death of his partner. Heggie has said that he identifies strongly with the tensions between Maddy, a single parent, and her children, since he had lost his father through suicide as a young boy. Von Stade, too, found that the characters resonated with her own family life, noting the similarities between Maddy and the singer's mother: “It's her! The only thing I don't do onstage (as Maddy) is smoke.”
  • Heggie and Scheer have collaborated on numerous stage and concert works, most recently receiving rave reviews for their operatic setting of Moby-Dick, premiered in April at Dallas Opera. 
Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Keith Phares (Charlie), Emily Pulley (Bea) and Joyce Castle (Madeline) in Central City Opera's THREE DECEMBERS (2010). Photo by Kira Horvath.

Be sure to check out the other fun fact blogs on Madama Butterfly and Orpheus in the Underworld

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