Watch Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers in a new production streamed by Opera San Jose1:02, 2nd December 2020
Opera San Jose, based in the Bay Area of San Francisco, will be presenting its first made-for-digital opera, streaming to a global audience on 3 December. Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers is an intimate 90-minute chamber opera, based on unpublished play by Terence McNally with a libretto by Gene Scheer. The work is a powerful exploration of a family dynamics, as a mother, son and daughter finally confront a terrible secret. Susan Graham leads the cast as the dysfunctional mother Madeline.
Jake Heggie talks to Opera Now about the streaming of Three Decembers from Opera San Jose
Opera Now: Three Decembers is is the story of an American family on the verge of falling apart, but eventually finding acceptance and reconciliation. Since streaming will bring Three Decembers to a global audience. Do you think the piece can work in any cultural context?
Jake Heggie: Absolutely! Family issues are universal – struggles to find one’s way in the world, family secrets, parents and children dealing with issues of infidelity, depression, addiction, disease etc – none of that is going away. These are timeless struggles. Those are the stories that interest me most – intimate stories with large forces at work that are timely and timeless, American and universal. I look at Dead Man Walking and its journey around the globe. It is a very American story – and yet, it seems to have broad, universal resonance … and it feels timeless.
ON: You wrote Three Decembers as a starring vehicle for the wonderful mezzo Frederica von Stade. It’s a tough call for Madeline as she doesn’t seem a very likeable character. Given how close you are to Frederica (you’ve written for her often), what did she think when you handed her the role of a pathologically narcissistic anti-heroine?
JH: Oh my. I think Maddy is AMAZING! I find her very brave – tough – determined – brilliant – and deeply feeling. She has had to make tough choices and been faced with incredible obstacles. Did she always make the right decision? No – but who does? She loves her children fiercely. Like a lot of moms, she doesn’t always know how to show it. And if she doesn’t always know how to show it or what to do, does that make her any less? I thought Flicka was PERFECT for the role because it would challenge her to bring to the stage some of the difficulties she faced in her own life – to honour the struggles and how she found her way through them. We can all relate to that. We don’t need to love Maddy – but we can all be fascinated by her, drawn to her, and wonder what she’s going to do next.
ON: How different have the interpretations been by other mezzos who have sung the role of Madeline over the past decade and more – any surprising insights? And what do you think Susan Graham (another mezzo you’ve worked closely with) will bring to the forthcoming San Jose production?
JH: This is what I LIVE for! To create roles and operas that are open to MANY perspectives, talents and ideas. Do I always agree? No – but that doesn’t matter! People wondered initially who could do Sister Helen as well as Susan Graham? The mother as well as Flicka? And yet – LOTS of people have shown up with fresh ideas and perspectives and made those roles their own. The same with Three Decembers. I have enjoyed so many performances with vastly different takes on the characters. Susan Graham is a GREAT singing actress – and she is relentless in digging deep into the psyche of the characters she inhabits. She was an incredible Mrs DeRocher last year at the Chicago Lyric Opera (to Pat Racette’s Sister Helen and Ryan McKinney’s Joseph) – and she is an inspired Madeline Mitchell. And she has made the role totally her own.
ON: How human beings change and grow over time is one of the key elements in Three Decembers. 12 years on from the world premiere, do you think about where Charlie and Bea, Madeline’s children, might be now and how their memory of their mother might have changed? In other words, does the opera continue to evolve for you and do you continue to change it?
JH: That’s a good question and one nobody has ever asked me! I can imagine Bea remarried and closer than ever to her kids and grandkids. I can imagine Charlie flourishing with his partner, Michael – perhaps they have married and are now even raising a child themselves. The “moment of truth” in the opera – when Maddy finally tells Bea and Charlie about their father – is one of the toughest moments in their lives, but it is the moment when they are finally set free. All of her life, Bea felt she had the ladder propped up on the wrong wall, but couldn’t seem to figure out why. Once she had the truth, she knew what to do … and she could build on a foundation truth rather than lies.
After the premeire in 2008, Gene and I did a few rewrites to the piece: turned it into a 90-minute one act opera and replaced Maddy’s original big Broadway number with the softer, aching “Daybreak.” It suddenly worked like a dream – and has had a good life since then with more than 30 productions. Gene and I both feel we said what we felt compelled to say with the work.
ON: Secrets among families – is it best to keep them? What does Three Decembers tell us about the power of truth?
JH: The truth will set you free. That’s one of the overall arching themes in all of my operas. Once you know the truth, you can start building.
ON: Four years of Trump and now the global Covid pandemic… it’s been a tough time for the performing arts in the US. What has been the impact on your creative life and on the kind of stories you might want to tell in through your operas in future?
JH: I’m just finishing up a VERY exciting new project for Houston Grand Opera called INTELLIGENCE. It’s the story of brave women spies in the South during the Civil War – but we are telling it in a very contemporary way. These women were heroic, the stakes were very high, but they felt compelled to do whatever was within their power (including their invisibility in that period) to make the world better. Look up the story of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser. It is, again, a timeless story. I also just completed a song cycle project with baritone Joshua Hopkins and the writer Margaret Atwood, who is a total genius. It’s called Songs for Murdered Sisters and speaks to the worldwide problem of violence against women. It will have its premiere in a stream from Houston Grand Opera on 19 Feb 2021.
Finding CONNECTION through meaningful, timely (and timeless), important social issues – issues of social juistice – this is where I find inspiration and motivation. Working with great colleagues, singers, writers, directors. What could be more rewarding?
I think when it’s finally safe to return to the theatre, people will return in droves. I think we are starved for that kind of connection and transformation. I also think it’s a wake-up call for everyone in the opera world – that we must be the ambassadors and champions of this art form. Each of us must bring new people into the fold, inspire young people, and welcome their perspectives and ideas.