It's Dallas. It's Sunday. The Cowboys play at three o’clock. Every Dallasite knows that you need to plan around that. You go to the early service at church, youth soccer games are scheduled in the morning and no sensible Opera company would plan a matinee for that day. But thats just what the Dallas Opera did this November weekend for the second performance of the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott at the Winspear Opera House.
In America, it seems football will beat opera every time the two compete for an audience. But "who says football and opera don't mix?" asks a character in the opening scene of Great Scott. Set in present day, the fictional American Opera Company is staging the previously unknown opera, Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei during the big game. The hometown team, the Grizzlies (not to be confused with the real life Memphis basketball team), are playing in the Super Bowl. And in another real life parallel Great Scott's opera within an opera stars a fictional opera superstar, Arden Scott, performed by real life opera superstar, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Great Scott is the creation of famed playwright Terrence McNally and composer Jake Heggie. It is not based on a book like Heggie’s previous opera, Moby Dick which premiered in Dallas in 2010. McNally’s characters are not based on real people, as was his previous collaboration with Heggie in the 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking, about real life heroine, Sister Helen Prejean. Instead, this opera is steeped in the truth of American society and its priorities.
Heggie’s lovely overture sounds old and new at the same time. Reminiscent of musical theater with perhaps a hint of a Rossini fanfare, or were those notes from a football team’s fight song? And that was definitely a ref’s whistle. When the curtain opens, we find a full chorus of modern Americans rehearsing for the previously unperformed opera, Rosa Dolorosa. The kitchen sink of opera is thrown at us: an erupting volcano, a love triangle, a tragic heroine who will have her mad scene in Act 2, and the requisite sacrifice of a beautiful young virgin. We learn many of these are opera tropes thanks to an Opera 101 tutorial from Roane played by countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, who is delightful as the stage manager.
Set in contemporary America, the dramatic tension is more subtle than in classical operas. Arden is an established opera performer, who sacrificed a comfortable life for a career, but now she's wondering if it was all worth it. An up-and-coming young foreigner named Tatyana Bakst, played by the soprano Ailyn Pérez, is vying to take Scott's spot as America’s opera diva. When Arden turns down the opportunity to sing the National Anthem before the Super Bowl, Bakst jumps at the chance and her performance goes viral (a seemingly impossible feat for 21st century opera). Pérez's pinpoint comic timing is on full display when she sings the National Anthem (with snort-laugh worthy variations) accompanied by a quartet of operatic sheriffs acting as her back-up singers, while a huge digital American flag flies in the background.
These are modern people on stage, which can seem almost progressive in an opera. Arden has a tattoo and drinks Starbucks. Her former boyfriend, and renewed love interest, rides a Harley. And everyone has a cell phone. World famous mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade plays Winnie Flato, the director of the American Opera Company, forever singing "Go, Grizzlies, Go, Go, Go!" Turns out, her husband owns the hometown football team. At one point Winnie joins the opera singers in an alliterative game, in which they go through the alphabet singing about potential performances in different cities, like the tongue twister ‘quoting Quixote in Quebec.' It seems to summarize not just the vagabond life of an opera singer, but also the modern American phenomenon of being too busy. (Too busy, perhaps, for a three hour opera?) An appreciative audience laughed, applauded and there was a knee slap followed by the comment ‘How cute.’ When was the last time you heard someone say that in an opera? Great Scott is indeed great fun.
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If all this sounds like the creators of this new opera have created some kind of comic farce, Great Scott is far from frivolous. The first act offers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for a never performed piece, which is at times silly, and at others a train wreck, upon occasion calling into question the value of opera itself. In Act 2 we see Rosa Dolarosa performed. It is initially difficult to take it seriously because, along with the characters, we weren't sure whether the opera had merit. But the bel canto of DiDonato lends the credibility necessary for us to suspend our initial cynicism and become fully immersed in the classical beauty of the music Heggie has composed. Here in Great Scott, in Rosa Dolorosa, the music transcends the story itself.
The development of the characters in Great Scott takes place backstage and thanks to clever set design by Bob Crowley we are there to learn their foibles. The proud Barahunk, played ably by an oft-shirtless Michael Mayes is nervous that the audience may like his physique more than his singing. We learn the maestro has a crush on Roane, and we learn that Roane, the capable stage manager, feels invisible. Then, we are in her dressing room when Arden sees the ghost of Rosa Dolorosa's composer, Maestro Bazzetti, and in conversation with him (or with herself) she wrestles with her career past, present and future. DiDonato’s steely soprano retains its dignity throughout her moments of soul-searching — she never goes fully crazy like the women of operas past. Her performance, as well as the entire ensemble, is nuanced. The entire cast of Great Scott balance strong comedic acting with an ability to embrace heartfelt moments.
In the final scene, we watch from backstage as a single light burns onstage and alone, Arden Scott looks into an empty theater. The future both for her, and for opera, is unpredictable, and she seems to be questioning the value of opera, and her role in it. And this seems to be the greater question that McNally and Heggie are asking in Great Scott about the future of the arts and specifically opera. But with Great Scott, the light seems brighter than before. Great Scott scores big, and the Cowboys lost anyway.
Great Scott continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Nov. 15, and at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Single tickets $19 to $275; season subscriptions $75 to $1,700. 214-443-1000. dallasopera.org.