art, artists, arts, Dallas Opera, Frederica von Stade, Great Scott, Jack O'Brien, Jake Heggie, Joyce DiDonato, Melody S. Owens, Metropolitan Opera, Nathan Gunn, new opera, opera, Terrence McNally, theatre
Fans of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, and especially the opera quiz, will remember the playwright Terrence McNally as one of most knowledgeable and humorous participants. I had the opportunity to work with Mr. McNally some years ago, and I remember thinking at the time, how is it was possible that a man so firmly of the theatre also knows and cares so much about the weird world of opera?
Opera is a strange hybrid, combining symphony and singing and acting and visual arts and sometimes dance in one great amalgam. When it all comes together, everyone and everything at its peak, it is the richest, most exciting and moving of feasts. And when – most of the time – it is a mixed bag, where some parts work and some parts don’t, there is still much to be appreciated and enjoyed. I was lucky to have had a generous and patient professor who spent many hours with me, dissecting my standing room experiences, explaining, providing context, and helping me to grow into a true lover of the form. I had help. But for Mr. McNally it was love at first sight: upon being asked what led him to love opera, he has said it is like being asked what led you to love vanilla ice cream. You just do!
Imagine the thrill, then, when this consummate man of the theatre, who over the past five decades has so beautifully documented our lives in plays infused with warmth, humanity and hilarity, turned his hand to opera libretti. His authorship of the books of musicals (among them Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, The Visit, and my favorite, A Man of No Importance) showed that he already knew well how to weave a strong story into the world of sung theatre. When he and composer Jake Heggie adapted Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking into an opera fifteen years ago, the whole world benefitted from this powerful artistic collaboration.
Now there is a new McNally-Heggie opera, Great Scott, an entirely original story that premiered at Dallas Opera a couple weeks ago. I can attest that is a full-blown knock-out hit, superb music, compelling characters, fun, poignant and, yes, important. It invokes themes that are at the core of all of McNally’s best works – why are we here? Are we of value? Are we contributing? Is anyone happier, wiser, kinder, better, for my existence? McNally and Heggie address, through a gracefully crafted opera-within-an-opera story, a question as big as whether or not art is relevant. As McNally’s libretto says, we need food, we need peace, but we also need art. Beauty matters. And of course, since Terrence McNally was involved, this new contribution to the opera repertoire is not only moving but also delightfully funny.
He had the best of collaborators: Mr. Heggie, who has a true gift for writing for the human voice, and the musical vocabulary to compose in just about any style. Joyce DiDonato, Nathan Gunn, the treasured Frederica von Stade, Jack O’Brien directing – one could not ask for better. The opening night crowd was treated to aria after aria of breathtaking complexity, highlighting Ms. DiDonato’s coloratura forte; touching duets exploring lost love and the gratitude and affection between student and mentor; and a final quartet of treble voices, Rosenkavalier-style, of such melting beauty that the weeping in the house was audible. Ring out the bells! A new opera is born! A grand, gorgeous, luscious show for opera lovers, and more than that, a sumptuous sung testament to the essentiality of artists and their creations. Thank you Mr. Heggie and Mr. McNally, and all hail the proud parents: we are so, so lucky to witness the new arrival!