Cal Performances and SF Opera present the West Coast premiere of Three Decembers by Jake Heggie, local San Franciscan, specialist in vocal music, and composer of operas Dead Man Walking and To Hell and Back.
First off, I notice the joint is comfortably half empty. The balcony was completely empty or closed, the mezzanine had a smattering of people, and the orchestra was about two-thirds full during the first act. I was seated in the left tier, row BB, with an excellent view of the stage; mine was the the only seat taken in a row of four seats. At least it's quality people in attendance. I did run into Leslie Ann Jones during intermission!
An over-enthusiastic usher shooed people away from the lowered pit before the show. There might have been a reason for this, but I've not seen this kind of shooing before. People like to look in the pit, is there a problem? The pit, which raised and lowered for effect, held the singers, and a reduced ensemble was set up on the stage: two pianos, three violins, one cello, one bass, a percussionist and a smattering of woodwinds. (What no viola? How West Side Story.) Conductor Patrick Summers, who seemed to cue only the orchestra, manned one piano, and at the second piano was the composer himself, participating in his own work.
Heggie's style can be summarily characterized by three traits.
1. Tonality. His work is conservatively tonal and easy for any audience to digest.
2. His melodies fit well in the vocal range of any singing voice he employs; singers clearly love singing his music, and you can see their enjoyment. He builds a scene well and plans things out to optimize each voice.
3. At the same time, Heggie maintains a deliberate avoidance of anything catchy or earwormy. You won't leave humming a banal ditty that's stuck in your ear.
The work, based on Terrence McNally's 1999 play Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls), is neatly structured into three Decembers, 1986, 1996, and 2006. Gene Scheer's engaging libretto builds a full story around only three singers, a truly great challenge. It requires a real economy of style and strength of concept to create an opera that doesn't need a liberal peppering of supporting roles, let alone a chorus and supernumeraries. Sheer and Heggie pull it off in a big way. (Heggie works well in this reduced format; To Hell and Back also relied on phone calls, letters, and a small cast.)
The story involves overbearing mother Maddy (a part written expressly for Frederica von Stade aka Flicka), her adult son and daughter, and the haunting presence of the deceased father which permeates the whole opera. The father is the object of obsessive fascination by the adult children, even if all the son actually remembers is the father's chair. The father has become an idealized figure for the children who feel emotionally neglected by their self-obsessed, egomaniacal stage actress mother. (Maddy thoughtlessly wants to exploit her son Charley's partner's AIDS death in a Tony acceptance speech.) McNally and Scheer capture the way many straight people in the 80s and 90s tried to glibly profess some kind of empathy for AIDS suffering while simultaneously revealing their distaste for the whole matter.
Set numbers provide intermittent relief from family drama. Mom does a Broadway/cabaret type number. The kids do a number about easing your pain by shopping for shoes, which to me instantly recalled Kelly's viral meme. There's always room for more songs about... shoes. Heggie's shoes number, filled with intended and unintended intertextual references, connects the 1996 setting to today. A song about women (and by extension, gay men) self-medicating via shopping for shoes seems at once novel and cliché on the opera stage, but of course, the audience ate it up.
If you missed it, you can buy a two-CD set of the Houston Grand Opera world premiere.