CHATHAM, N.Y. — For many families, the month of December can be fraught with high expectations and deep emotions.
The challenges facing one family will be brought to life through music when Berkshire Opera Festival stages acclaimed composer Jake Heggie’s 2008 chamber opera “Three Decembers” at PS21’s Pavilion Theater on July 21 and 23.
Based on an unpublished play by Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally for an AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall, the story follows Broadway star Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Beatrice and Charlie, over the course of 20 years. Scenes are set in Decembers of 1986, 1996 and 2006.
San Francisco-based Charlie’s partner, Burt, has AIDS. Bea struggles with her marriage and her drinking. Self-centered show-biz mother Maddy offers little support to either child. As they all strive to connect, old wounds reopen and secrets are revealed.
Singing the role of Maddy is mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, last seen at BOF in 2017 in Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Joining her are soprano Monica Dewey as daughter Bea and baritone Theo Hoffman as son Charlie, both making their BOF opera debuts.
Presenting American opera is a core intention of BOF’s second stage series, said Brian Garman, Berkshire Opera Festival's artistic director, during a phone interview. “We’re an American opera company and very proudly so. And we have an obligation to the future of the art form to present and foster new work. This is an outstanding new work from one of the most popular and greatest American opera composers currently writing.
“The music is extremely affecting and accessible. There’s a Broadway flavor, given the lead character is a Broadway actress. The story is very powerful, it’s based on a play by late, great Terrence McNally, one of the very early COVID-19 fatalities.”
He added, "There’s a certain poignancy in performing an opera that begins in the middle of a pandemic during a pandemic which is still going on, as much as we would like to be over it.”
This is Berkshire Opera Festival's seventh season and second modern opera.
“We started last year with Tom Cipullo’s ‘Glory Denied,’ the second stage allows us to broaden our horizons, musically speaking,” Garman said. “Adriana Zabala is a magnificent artist, I was looking for opportunities to bring her back. I thought Maddy was the perfect role for her.
“Monica Dewey is a beautiful lyric soprano, she plays the daughter, Beatrice. I think she will be marvelous in this role, she’s an extremely compelling actress. Theo Hoffman is a wonderful young lyric baritone. Back in 2014, he sang at our first BOF launch event in New York City. In a way he has been with us from Day One. Eight years later, I can finally bring him back in a role.”
He added, “[Stage Director Beth Greenberg] has been a very good colleague and friend for well over 25 years. We first met in Pittsburgh, then worked together for six years at New York City Opera. The very talented young conductor Christopher James Ray is at Opera San Jose in California. This is the third production of 'Three Decembers' he has conducted; it’s a piece he knows very well.”
Garman regards “Three Decembers” as an ideal vehicle for fans of musical theater to explore operatic work.
“It’s a great way for that door to be opened, musically it’s an idiom they will recognize and understand and appreciate," he said. “Jake Heggie knows how to set words to music. It’s touching and conveys the emotion of the moment really well.”
This is the festival’s first production at PS21, a covered pavilion theater with open sides.
“The venue is lovely, it’s the perfect size for our second stage, and the sound is great,” said Garman. “PS21 is committed to a lot of contemporary work that is in alignment with our mission and values.”
“I began my career at [partially open-air] Santa Fe Opera,” he added. “PS21 took me back to those days and brought back wonderful memories.”
Three "American Greats" combined forces to create this opera, said stage director Beth Greenberg.
“The first is Terrence McNally, the playwright, he was a great champion of gay characters early on, and liked writing about show business people," she said. “Throughout the opera we learn of each [character’s] plight as they attempt to connect with each other, and begin to tear down the walls and love each other in an honest way.
“Then we put it in the hands of the great American librettist Gene Scheer and composer Jake Heggie, probably one of the top American opera composers living right now,” Greenberg said. “He has a great range and also a great lyric style.”
Audiences could leave the theater humming one of his tunes, she added.
McNally wrote the libretto for Heggie’s first big opera success “Dead Man Walking,” and Heggie wrote the opera “Moby-Dick” with Scheer, she noted.
This is Greenberg’s first time working with BOF. “There’s a level of excellence with everything: musical staff, design team, production staff, just first-rate. Plus a terrific cast, Brian Garman has the best ear for voices. I feel very at home working there.”
After studying in Germany on a Fulbright award, Greenberg has staged operas around the U.S. and internationally in Japan, Europe and Peru. While she is most used to having 100 performers on stage — she spent two decades with New York City Opera at Lincoln Center — Greenberg is equally familiar with small intimate dramas.
Working with just three actors offers a different creative challenge, she said. “The most important skill is knowing how to encourage and enable them to do their best job. Then it becomes a very joyous collaborative experience.”
Juilliard-trained baritone Hoffman is happy to be back in the Berkshires area, which he visited often as a child.
“I’m flying from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, and cities are fun, but in the country your voice and your heart are in a different place,” he said. “Ten years in, I’ve always felt I do my best singing in these naturally beautiful places.”
“Three Decembers” is all about the tension between a mother and two children, he said; “such a universal topic, anyone with a family will be drawn in by the story.
Within the opera’s stylistic range, a duet might sound like a musical, while other moments sound like Puccini, he said.
“Heggie brings out this emotional storytelling so effectively, he will make you laugh and then cry in the same page of music. He uses harmonic language to pull emotion from us.”
Hoffman’s character, Charlie, is a gay man whose lover has AIDS.
“He’s trying to navigate his relationship with his mother, who had a wonderful career in the theater but ultimately sacrificed so much she damaged her children in various ways.“
Charlie interfaces with her around the illness and his homosexuality, at a time when a parent might not approach it the way we would today, he added.
The AIDS theme has special resonance for Hoffman.
“By the time I came up in the music industry, AIDS was very different in the US. But it was heartbreaking to hear about the epidemic from older mentors who would tell me half their colleagues just disappeared one day. I realized I was filling a void caused by AIDS.
He regards “Three Decembers” as a piece of American history.
“I don’t have personal experience, but I have friends and close family who did. I’m happy to honor them by telling this story.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Three Decembers” Chamber opera based on a play by Terrence McNally.
With: Music by Jake Heggie, Libretto by Gene Scheer. Conducted by Christopher James Ray. Stage Directed by Beth Greenberg. Sung by Adriana Zabala, Monica Dewey, Theo Huffman, with 11 piece orchestra. In English, contains adult language.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Who: Berkshire Opera Festival and PS21/Performance Spaces for the 21st Century
Where: Pavilion Theater, PS21, 2980 NY-66, Chatham, New York
When: 7:30 p.m., July 21 and 1 p.m., July 23
Admission: $60, general; $45, PS21 member; $20 students and youth.
COVID-19 policy: Proof of vaccination and at least one booster or negative PCR test within 72 hours of the performance required. Masks optional.