A relatively new opera company UrbanArias stages the touching, beautiful opera Three Decembers by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer based on a play by Terrence McNally. Robert Wood founded UrbanArias in 2010 to produce modern, short operas – all written in the last 40 years and all under 90 minutes. Heggie was in the audience for opening night. One of the perks of a modern piece – and this truly is. They start the opera on the phone and at one point hum through one of the songs. Heggie and Scheer also collaborated on Moby-Dick, which debuted on the east coast at The Kennedy Center last season.
Though the scope is far from epic with three actors onstage who handle the scene changes and a 10-person orchestra handling the score, the production is top-notch. It spans three locations, several time jumps, and shifts between tragedy and comedy, and Director Michael McConnell handles the changes with aplomb.
The set and costumes by Greg S. Stevens are gorgeous – summoning entire sumptuous apartments with a frame and bit of velvet and decking the actors in beautiful gowns or character-perfect plaid. The orchestra shines from the back of stage. When there are only 10 musicians, no one has a place to hide and no one on that stage needs it. Wood also conducts Heggie’s beautiful score. Heggie has such a knack for conjuring up the world in his music. In “God it’s amazing, what a view,” two actors stand on the Golden Gate Bridge and you can feel you’re there as violins summon the wind and the characters’ hopes.
In the funny, subtle libretto, Scheer tells the story of Madeline Mitchell (Janice Hall) and her two children, Charlie (Michael Mayes) and Beatrice (Emily Pulley). Over the course of three Decembers and three Christmas letters, they explore their family history – touching on AIDs, fame, infidelity, depression, and mothers with their children. There’s no easy scapegoat or hero, making for a more nuanced experience than most traditional opera. It’s also darn funny. Mitchell is a famous actor, which is not always easy for her children, and at one point in “She’s late. No she forgot you,” Bea and Charlie sing a hilarious song about 40 years of shopping for shoes instead of therapy.
Soprano Janice Hall (Madeline Mitchell), an opera luminary with an international career who has focused on modern works recently, is the lynchpin of the family and the production. She sings “The painting we bought on a street long ago” with her seasoned voice. Her character says at one point, “I’m too old, too rich, and too famous to be doing this.”
Emily Pulley (Beatrice) is a great foil, playing both her love and exasperation for her mother without melodrama, in pieces like, “It was a great house tonight. It was really fun.” Michael Mayes (Charlie) lends his rich baritone to the two sopranos and holds his own on “Each day I write you four little lines.” He’s grieving and as he sings, “I don’t know how this goes,” it’s such an achingly perfect expression of that familiar pain. The intimate venue is also a fun chance to see these performers up close and hear the precision and training in their voices.
To be honest, there’s not much more to say, nor much more I can say. Three Decembers is really, really good. I wrote down far less than usual, too caught up in the notes and the nuance to worry about describing them later.
Three Decembers is a minimalist production and far superior to many more complicated stagings. The libretto, score, singing, acting, and orchestra make for the perfect modern opera. The art form is still alive and kicking and as Maddy says of life, “I’m awfully glad I showed up for it.”
Three Decembers is a touching and enlightening experience.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.