Dallas — Great Scott is an opera about opera companies. Specifically, it concerns the people behind “American Opera Company,” an operation of some size, that is bringing a top-level international star, a local girl made good, to sing in a newly discovered opera from the 19th century’s bel canto era. One of the complications of this complex plot is that the husband of the impresario owns a football team, The Grizzlies, and—as luck (or destiny) would have it—they will be playing in the Super Bowl the same night the opera opens.
The music is by Jake Heggie, who composed Moby-Dick for the Dallas Opera in 2010. He again joins with librettist Terrence McNally, a Tony-winning playwright who wrote the libretto to Heggie's first big opera, Dead Man Walking. The director is Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien, known for his time leading San Diego's The Old Globe and for such Broadway productions as Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, as well as numerous plays by Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare and August Wilson. (He has three directing Tonys and has been nominated for seven more).
In Great Scott, which comes from a completely original story by Texas native McNally, the librettist presents a collection of characters that you might find in any opera company in the world. Although they are all stereotypical, they are not stereotypes. McNally imbues them humanity: all our fancies, foibles, follies and feats are on display.
The plot is twisty, so follow me here.
It revolves around two women. One is a great opera star at the top of her game, Arden Scott, who is being sung by a great opera star: mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Arden lived in this town through high school. She was discovered and her natural talent was encouraged by Mrs. Winnie Flato, who runs the local opera company and was a fine singer in her own right. An operatic superstar is playing this role, too: Frederica von Stade who, like her fictional character, has helped to guide many a singer’s career.
Their relationship is that of mentor and mentored, but Winnie’s pride in Arden’s accomplishments is more than payment in full for not having opted for a major career herself.
Then there is Tatyana Bakst, a wildly talented young soprano, well on her way to the top, who is cast in the female secondary role. She hails from Eastern Europe and has been unleashed on her first assignment in America. She is bold, brash, carefree and clueless. Much of the hilarity comes from her antics and her interactions with the other members of the company. She is being portrayed by a wildly talented soprano well on her way to the top, Ailyn Pérez—who definitely is not clueless.
When any opera in any company is in production, the stage manager calls many of the shots and must show a firm hand when dealing with a collection of artists—without coming across as obnoxious or bossy. McNally wrote Roane, his stage manager character, to be highly competent, widely respected and a little bit wild. McNally and Heggie also made him a countertenor, singing in the soprano range. Anthony Roth Costanzo plays him as the lightening-quick Loge, god of fire in Wagner’s ring: a spark leaping from place to place. He catches the eye of Eric Gold, the conductor, played by Kevin Burdette, and thus one of the two romances in the score is launched.
The rest of the sparks are ignited by Arden and her high school flame, Sid Taylor, the young man she left behind, played by Nathan Gunn. He stayed put to build a career as an architect, and she had to leave in order to pursue an international singing career. Both have achieved these lofty goals and are now divorced. You will have to wait until you see Great Scott to know how this “high school reunion” turns out.
At its center, this opera is about relationships (whether prized or sacrificed) and the conflicts of modern life that we all face—one way or t'other.
Arden and Winnie have a relationship common to mentor and mentored. Winnie is incredibly proud of Arden, who cannot help but feel Winnie gave up any chance of a career of her own on her behalf.
Roane and the conductor both love music, but couldn’t be further apart in matters of personal taste. The conductor loves opera and Roane likes Lady Gaga. This stage manager doesn’t get why opera hasn’t embraced the music of the times and the conductor cannot understand why someone who has worked in opera all his life isn’t in love with the art form just the way it is.
Arden and Sid parted regretfully to follow their dreams and have ended up alone. Well, not exactly; Sid has a young son, Tommy, who appears in the opera. As single parents know, this probably means his date nights are few and far between. Can the pair breach the chasm of time and lives lived in diametrically opposite ways? Arden is booked solid for the next six years. Can Sid give up the hometown life he loves in order to tag along? What about his son?
Is Winnie content with the trade she made in choosing her football-team-owning-very-wealthy-husband, whose involvement in her opera company is limited to writing checks and making her happy?
How can Arden deal with the talented, but naïve and ambitious soprano nipping at her heels? Should Arden commit to the modern operas being written for her? We don’t know what the one in question sounds like, but we can assume that it is certainly not bel canto.
And finally, how did Heggie deal with the inherent conflict of writing two operas at the same time in two different musical styles? One is Rosa Dolorosa, figlia de Pompeii, the recently discovered fictitious bel canto work that is incorporated into the score. The other is a poignant comedy written in Heggie’s own distinctive compositional voice. While not Lady Gaga, per se, Heggie must confront Roane’s question: can modern opera be relevant in today’s culture while still holding true to its heritage?
Part two of this primer will be an interview with the two most non-conformist characters in Great Scott: Anthony Roth Costanzo and Ailyn Pérez.
» Gregory Sullivan Isaacs will give the pre-opera lecture before each of the five performances of Great Scott.
» Read his interview with soprano Ailyn Pérez and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo here
» Read our interview with soprano Joyce DiDonato here
» Look for more features and interviews related to Great Scott coming on TheaterJones