What do you imagine when you think of “going to the Opera?” Vast theaters, draped entirely in tacky red velvet? Huge casts with elaborate sets in sprawling shows that go on for hours in a language you studied half-heartedly in high school? Those are typical answers, but UrbanArias, a local opera company devoted to producing short contemporary works, turns all of those assumptions on their head. Their newest offering, Three Decembers by Jack Heggie and Gene Scheer, is an intimate, small-cast affair that gives its audience a beautifully emotional evening enjoying contemporary opera.
The opera is divided into three parts, set perhaps obviously in three different Decembers, and is plotted around Maddie Mitchell, a Broadway actress, and her relationship with her two children, Charlie and Bea. Spanning over 20 years, each act contains a different contemporary subject (AIDS, frustration at the success of an absent parent, coping with loss), but largely the same tone: reactions to suffering and grief. These somber subjects are broken up by occasional comedic interludes which create a somewhat out of place, but blessedly welcome, change of tempo.
Even though this opera is ostensibly about the strong-willed Maddie (played by the brightly flourishing Janice Hall), she is principally seen through the eyes of her children. They make the biggest emotional journeys in the play, and, especially Charlie, feel more like protagonists than Maddie.
Michael Mayes plays Charlie with exceptional emotional skill and range, and although he doesn’t have as much raw vocal talent as the ladies of the cast, he is the most watchable and actorly in the group. Emily Pulley’s Bea is the reverse, emanating vocal talent and class, only somewhat matching the incredibly difficult part of the alcoholic older sister who has a tough balance of rage, regret, and support to juggle. She takes on the part with verve and tenacity, as all of these actors do, and they perform admirably, quite above the usual schlocky expectations for acting in operas. They deserve a bravo for their acting efforts in a difficult piece.
Remember, going into Three Decembers, that opera, even this intimate and contemporary opera, is not the same as a musical, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Music comes first at the opera, and Conductor Robert Wood takes his chamber ensemble to powerful heights that mirror and enhance the emotional journeys of the characters. What he gets so right are the details of the score: the bounce of an early telephone conversation, the distant foghorn blast on a scene on a San Francisco bridge, the sweet sadness of a funeral.
The best reason to catch Three Decembers is this music – not the earworm pop of a musical, but rather the languorous enjoyment of music with a true arc.
Closes October 4, 2014
1101 Wilson Blvd
1 hour, 3- minutes with no intermission
Friday and Saturday
In the directing, the arc of the plot is less clear, and Michael McConnell’s direction doesn’t have the finesse of exceptional theatrical directing. Dead time between scenes is extensive, characters enter and exit through illogical places, and sometimes the actors don’t seem to know where they are going or what they are supposed to be doing. This confusion is mirrored in some of the design. Some of the costumes are unseasonable, confuse the storyline or simply don’t fit the actor. The set, while it has a lovely palette, is littered with unnecessary objects that the actors trip or fuss over and that sometimes wildly clash with the costumes.
But these are details in the opera that, while they might be a bigger deal in a different medium, only keep a good play from being great. There are plenty of goosebump moments, genuine peals of laughter, and beautiful moments. Three Decembers feels to me very much like a playgoers opera. Urban Arias has made a vastly different opera experience from some audiences’ expectations, and that is a very good thing. You should check it out if you are a traditional theatergoer and want a perspective shift on the art of opera. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Three Decembers . Music by Jake Heggie . Libretto by Gene Scheer after Terrence McNally . Directed by Michael McConnellFeaturing Janice Hall, Emily Pulley and Michael Mayes . Robert Wood conducting the INSCAPE Chamber Orchestra . Set and Costume Design by Greg Stevens . Lighting Design by Joseph R. Walls . Produced by UrbanArias . Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Mike Paarlberg . City Paper it’s a soap opera parody that doesn’t realize it’s either a soap opera or a parody.
Jessica Vaughan . DCMetroTheaterArts a touching and enlightening experience.