Dallas — Back in 2011, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato made her North Texas recital debut at Bass Performance Hall, in a concert presented by The Cliburn. Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, TheaterJones’ chief classical music and opera critic, lamented that the hall was half-empty. In fairness, one of those wacky Texas ice storms was approaching, but still, it was worrisome that local audiences weren’t showing out for a name they may not have known yet. DiDonato’s star was rising, to be sure, but she was not quite the megastar (in opera terms) that she would soon become.
Ahem. We told you so.
Since then, we’ve reviewed her at the Santa Fe Opera and in a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of The Enchanted Forest. Now, North Texas will get to see her in something that, thankfully, is becoming less of a rarity these days: A world premiere opera, Great Scott, which opens Friday by the Dallas Opera at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, in a co-production with the San Diego Opera.
The opera is one of about 40 new operas premiering on stages around the country this year, and the Dallas Opera accounts for three of those, including Everest from February and the upcoming Becoming Santa Claus.
Great Scott is the biggest of big deals, though, considering the team involved: Composer Jake Heggie, the most successful of living opera composers, reteams with librettist Terrence McNally, a well-known, respected and awarded playwright who’s also a Texas native, born in Corpus Christi. Heggie and McNally, who saw his first opera when his family lived in Dallas when he was in middle school, first teamed up for the opera Dead Man Walking in 2000, which helped jump-start this exciting trend of new opera. Another Heggie opera, Three Decembers, was inspired by a McNally play (Fort Worth Opera presented it in 2012). And Heggie’s two other full-length operas, The End of the Affair and Moby-Dick, the latter of which had its premiere at Dallas Opera in 2010 and will reappear here in November 2016, were from ideas suggested by McNally. (Affair, based on the Graham Greene novel, had a libretto by playwright Heather McDonald; and Moby-Dick, from Melville, was on a libretto by Gene Scheer, who also wrote Three Decembers.)
But back to DiDonato.
She has indeed become a bona fide opera star, a mezzo who’s in demand at the Met and on major world opera stages. In Great Scott, she plays an opera megastar named Arden Scott. She returns to her hometown to help revive the opera company that made her famous, by presenting the premiere of a newly discovered bel canto opera (a fictitious one that Heggie also wrote original music for). Opening night happens on the same day as the Super Bowl, in which the local professional football team has made it for the first time. (Fascinating, considering for the last four seasons, Dallas Opera has partnered with the Dallas Cowboys to present a free spring simulcast of an opera at Cowboys Stadium.)
DiDonato’s costars in the work include opera stars Frederica “Flicka” von Stade, who plays the woman who runs the opera company and is married to the football team's owner, and Nathan Gunn, as well as rising star Ailyn Pérez. It’s directed by Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien who, incidentally, also directed the national tour of The Sound of Music that’s opening at Dallas Summer Musicals next week.
In the coming days on TheaterJones, look for stories about Great Scott by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, who will be giving the pre-opera lectures before each performance of Great Scott. We’ll also have interviews with Heggie, McNally and O’Brien—and a giveaway for a CD signed by Heggie.
But for now, here’s an interview with DiDonato, who talks about working with Heggie and McNally to create a new opera, Heggie’s compositional prowess and what the work says about the importance of the arts.
TheaterJones: I assume that when Jake Heggie says "I've written a role for you," you say "when!" What was your reaction when he first told you?
Joyce DiDonato: It actually started a bit earlier in the process, when he came to me and said “I have to write an opera for you. Let’s find the place to do it.” Then came, “what should we do?” which prompted months of emailing and exploring different topics and ideas. I can’t think of another artistic proposal that has ever been more thrilling (nor daunting) than this beautiful chain of events, and now that we are full-steam into the process, I have never had a more rewarding artistic experience!
And what was your response to the role once you heard the music?
I trust Jake implicitly in his joy in writing for the human voice. I also trust that he knows my voice inside/out, so I had not a single worry about how he would craft the role. I did worry a bit about the length of the role, because he kept saying, “Oh Joyce, it’s huge!” However, as the music began to arrive, I realized he has given me the artistic gift of a lifetime. I’ve fallen completely in love with Arden (as well as Rosa Dolorosa!), and the love and care he took with giving birth to this new piece is apparent in every single note, so my response continues to be one of absolute awe and euphoria.
Describe Jake's music in this piece. How does it differ from/compare to his previous work, and vocally, how challenging is it for you?
What was immediately apparent to me when I heard the outline of the story, is that Jake would have to “invent” a completely new musical language, one that incorporates a vast array of musical genres: 19th century Italian opera (composed by him, not copied!), English recitative-like passages, and then his “signature” soaring, vernacular vocal lines in English. Also, he needed to write comedic music, which I think is perhaps the most difficult challenge for any writer. So he has brought us something utterly original, completely unheard before, and in a musical style/language that embraces all of his musical influence—all at the service of celebrating art and humanity. It’s the great joy of my artistic life!
In what ways do you relate to Arden Scott?
Essentially in every single way. And it’s not merely because she is an American Diva, but simply because Terrence McNally has written a character who is completely true in her strength, vulnerability, and confusion—all brought to a boiling point under the pressure she is surrounded by. She is one of the most true characters I’ve ever had the joy of playing.
What does the opera have to say about the relation between arts and sports?
I don’t know that it’s something that is directly addressed, other than both exist, and both certainly deserve their own attention. But it’s clear that this piece makes a generous and beautiful argument that the arts absolutely MATTER.