Dallas — As many readers will now, The Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s new opera, Great Scott, on Oct. 30. In his preview piece about the premiere (‘Great Scott’ has great résumé), Scott Cantrell asks rhetorically “Why should Broadway have all the good tunes?” Anyone who has seen the opera knows that it has comic elements; some patrons I have spoken with even consider it a comedy. Having read a good cross-section of reviews by now, I have been struck by a certain degree of ambivalence towards comic material in an opera, as if opera and comedy were not compatible. Taking Cantrell’s question one step further, I might ask, “Why should Broadway have all the fun?”
There is no doubt that opera is at home with tragic themes. In fact, as I have written about before, opera is, arguably, addicted to the tragic. Many of the most famous operas are tragedies, including Puccini’s classic opera, Tosca, which TDO opened on Friday, Nov. 6. There are several good reasons for this. First, opera as an art form is uniquely suited to conveying extremes of emotion; in fact, audiences generally expect it. Second, the narrative structure for conventional opera allows for regular transitions between exposition and self-reflection; this approach goes back centuries, and allows characters to discover and convey their deepest feelings. Also, opera allows us to hone in on pivotal emotional connections between characters without necessarily requiring the interaction to be completely realistic. When I recently watched the new film Everest, I was struck by how naturally Joby Talbot’s opera of the same name—premiered by TDO in February—allowed the characters to present their backstories and inner motivations to climb, and how emotionally powerful the phone call was between Rob Hall, dying on the mountain, and his pregnant wife in New Zealand precisely because we could focus on the emotional interaction without having to provide a completely realistic setting.
Opera can bring a lot to comedy, too, however. While Puccini mostly wrote tragedies, Gianni Schicchi from Il trittico is generally produced as a comedy. Verdi’s Falstaff is inherently a comic opera, sometimes bordering on farce, although it contains serious moments. Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is an opera buffa, as is Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia; his L’italiana in Algeri is described a dramma giocoso (literally, a drama with jokes). Sometimes composers will incorporate comic touches into tragic operas, such as the role of the Sacristan in Act I of Tosca, in order to leaven more serious moments.
In preparing for the premiere of Great Scott, the distinguished librettist Terrence McNally resisted the term “comic” to describe the opera, and having now seen the full work in performance, it is easy to see why. At its core, the plot of Great Scott is based on mezzo-soprano Arden Scott returning to her hometown to save the struggling company that launched her career. The opening night performance of the long-lost opera she discovered in Saint Petersburg (Rosa Dolorosa, Daughter of Pompeii) falls on the same night as the home team’s first Super Bowl game. The opera is set in two acts. Act I shows the rehearsals for the opening of Rosa Dolorosa, and introduces many plot elements for the characters (e.g. Arden encountering her high-school flame, Sid Taylor, and beginning to rekindle her romance with him). In Act II, the opera company presents climactic moments of Rosa Dolorosa, and develops the interrelationships of the characters, both onstage, and off.
In this structure, Act I includes many comic moments, including some misadventures in the rehearsal process, and some comic interchange between the characters. Yet it also includes more tender moments, as when Arden and Sid meet again for the first time in many years. Act II includes additional comic elements, but also many more serious ones. This Act includes extended scenes of Rosa Dolorosa, with beautiful bel canto written for Joyce DiDonato—who performs it exquisitely. As McNally rightly notes, Rosa sacrificing herself, thinking it will save the people of Pompeii is hardly comic, though. Compare the situation with Mozart’s Don Giovanni: there are regular comic exchanges between Leporello and the Don, but he is dragged down to hell in the end—hardly qualifying this masterpiece as a conventional comedy. (That being said, Da Ponte’s libretto was described as a dramma giocoso, and Mozart cataloged it himself as an opera buffa!)
As I reflect on Great Scott, my favorite moments include both comic and more serious ones. Actually, my favorite moment in the entire opera is a tragic one: Rosa’s self-sacrifice to save the people of Pompeii, which, as Arden herself notes, was a futile gesture. Joyce DiDonato sings magnificently in this sequence, with music loving composed by Jake Heggie to show her voice to its best possible advantage. In TDO’s production, Joyce DiDonato’s body double Fanny Kerwich descends elegantly on a wire into the volcano, surrounded by ash and projections of lava. (As an aside, Fanny’s story is a fascinating one. She is an eighth generation circus performer, and Founder & Executive Artistic Director of the Lone Star Circus.)
There are also two comic moments in Great Scott that are especially memorable for me. Ailyn Pérez plays the role of an ambitious young Eastern European soprano named Tatyana Bakst, who envies Arden’s career in an operatic All About Eve moment (wanting everything Arden has achieved except “bigger, better and higher paid!”). I haven’t asked Terrence, but is it an accident that her last name is so similar to Ann Baxter who played Eve in the 1950 classic film with Bette Davis, All About Eve? I doubt it – especially since Arden’s first husband in Great Scott was named Lloyd—another character name from the film. Ailyn’s unique interpretation of the “Starry Spangled Banner, national anthem with variations” is brilliantly written by Heggie, magnificently sung by her, and hilariously funny. For this moment, Great Scott set and costume designer Bob Crowley puts us in the stadium for the Super Bowl, with projected crowds, camera flashes, fireworks, and a giant American flag.
A second comic highlight for me is stage manager Roane Heckle’s aria in Act I about his taste (or lack thereof) in opera—excellently sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo—which concludes with his statement “op’ra isn’t new; it’s over.” This aria entertainingly counterbalances Rosa Dolorosa conductor Eric Gold’s passion for period bel canto, played by Kevin Burdette. Anthony brings great energy and supremely natural singing to his interpretation of Roane’s character, which, like the opera itself, balances comic aspects with more serious and reflective themes.
Not unlike the storyline in All About Eve, the action in Great Scott is dominated by women: four in the case of the movie, three in this opera. (I should note in passing that All About Eve is the only film ever to have four women in the cast nominated for Oscars—two for best actress and two more for best supporting actress). I have already mentioned two central characters in Great Scott: Arden Scott and Tatyana Bakst. The third strong female character is Winnie Flato, head of American Opera and wife of the owner of the team playing in the Super Bowl, sung by Frederica von Stade. Flicka’s character is not inherently comic, but she sings elegantly and projects her usual warmth and personality onstage.
Returning to the question of tragic and comic operas, I think many of us responsible for programming can suffer a twinge of guilt for presenting lighthearted work. As General Directors, we must raise millions of dollars to produce new works, and need to reassure ourselves and our supporters that the work is important; subconsciously, this may be easier with a tragedy. In some ways, too, a comedy is riskier. Comedies can be killed in many ways—clumsy directing, poor timing of jokes, even poorly managed supertitles—and libretti for comedies have to be crisp and concise.
By contrast, audiences will overlook weak moments in a tragedy and still find the performance meaningful. Wagner’s music is generally regarded as being far superior to his poetry, but his music is so extraordinary, and his vision of gesamkunstwerk so compelling, that audiences can overlook his often-mediocre poetry (He tried to split the difference in Die Meistersinger, though, with a German comic opera, i.e. serious enough to be German, but still funny in spots). In the case of Broadway shows, audiences tend not to worry so much; most people see Broadway as “entertainment,” and so comedies are the norm. One of my favorite musicals of the last 25 years is The Will Rogers Follies, with a book by Peter Stone, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Cy Coleman. It ends tragically, with the death of Will Rogers in a plane crash, but there are many comic moments that precede his fatal flight with Wiley Post.
In my own case, when considering a programming choice, I like to use the “Ten Times Test”—i.e. how engaged I think I will be in a straight run of piano dress rehearsal, orchestra run-through, two dress rehearsals, and (up to) six performances. For a great work like Tosca, this is easy. I savor hearing how the singers sound each time they perform; for most, it is not exactly the same. I enjoy watching the ensemble develop, and I also look for new details in the libretto, music, and orchestration. In comedy, one major risk is that the jokes can become dated or stale. Perhaps one measure of truly great comic writing is that you can enjoy it even when you know the laugh lines. I know I could watch Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest performed by excellent actors for days at a time, without every growing weary of it, and I feel much the same way about much of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant wordplay.
Comedy and tragedy have been potent symbols in the theater going back to ancient Greece. While opera does notably favor the tragic, there are still opportunities to enjoy ourselves! As the operatic art form continues to develop, we will face ongoing possibilities for self-reflection about what types of subjects make for powerful and enduring operas, and how to balance the comic and more serious moments. I encourage readers to attend the final performance of Great Scott on Nov. 15, and one of the remaining Tosca performances, to sample two very different works that illustrate these themes and tensions.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"
- September 2013 "No Genuflecting Required"
- October 2013 "2B or Not 2B"
- November 2013 "Calling All Geeks"
- December 2013 "Stravinsky's Last Word"
- January 2014 "Opera Without Borders"
- February 2014 "To Be or Not To Be"
- March 2014 "A Mirror of His Time"
- April 2014 "A Postcard from Oman"
- May 2014 "Building Musical Brands That Deliver"
- June 2014 "The Turning of the Tide"
- July 2014 "Two Sides to Every Screen"
- August 2014 "Life and Death in the Mountains"
- September 2014 "Smells Like Team Spirit"
- October 2014 "Salome's Second Act"
- November 2014 "Opera in the Age of Anxiety"
- December 2014 "Just the Fachs, Ma'am"
- January 2015 "Inside Santa's Workshop"
- February 2015 "The New Verismo"
- March 2015 "Cultivating Great Women Conductors"
- April 2015 "We've Got You Covered"
- May 2015 "Top of Their Game"
- June 2015 "Shattering the Operatic Glass Ceiling"
- July 2015 "A Tsunami of North American Opera"
- August 2015 "The Dallas Opera's Riverboat Adventure"
- September 2015 "Supporting a World of Women Composers"
- October 2015 "On the Prowl for Opera's MVPs"