GRAND OPERA CHALLENGED BY FOOTBALL

Great Scott Flag

National Anthem at the Super Bowl

Photo:  Dallas Opera

Perhaps this new opera by Jake Heggie is the only one in the repertory that competes with football. The story line tells how a bel canto opera revival produced by a failing opera company tries to rival the local football team playing at the Super Bowl.

Does this scenario sound a little bit like San Diego without the Super Bowl?

Terrence McNally, the librettist for both “Dead Man Walking” and “Great Scott,” is a successful playwright with many Broadway and Hollywood hits with top awards to his credit. His collaboration with Jake Heggie for this new work is a major event in opera circles.

In an interview with McNally, he claims his idea for this new work had no connection to the near collapse of San Diego Opera two years ago. He reports that the concept for “Great Scott” germinated about four years ago to create a contemporary subject about opera with humor.

The world premiere of “Great Scott” in Dallas on October 30, 2015 was greeted by an enthusiastic audience and mostly favorable reviews. One critic for a national opera publication even went so far to say that “Great Scott” is a major American work and should acquire the same success as Heggie’s other operas being  performed around the world.

The scenario is a real-life conflict between the arts and sports when it comes to raising money for operations, especially public funds from the local community. “Great Scott” is crafted to be an opera-within-an-opera where the artists and musicians of a premiere performance are competing with the local football team appearing in the Super Bowl at the same time. The opera being produced, an obscure 18th century bel canto work about Pompeii, volcanoes and ghosts, was never previously performed.

This was a challenge for Jake Heggie to superimpose a bel canto style similar to Donizetti and Rossini right into a contemporary score. Some critics commented that he stole a lot from the great composers of the 18th century, but with great success.

Arden Scott, an international prima donna who comes back to help her hometown opera company survive, is being challenged by an ambitious backup soprano attempting to steal the spotlight. There are also several humorous subplots going on backstage with flirtations and the revival of an old love affair. Perhaps one of the more curious characters in the cast is the ghost of the opera’s 18th century composer visiting Arden Scott in her dressing room on opening night.

The several scenes in the two acts move from backstage rehearsals to dressing rooms and at one point to the Super Bowl stadium where the local Grizzly football team is winning. One of the clever features of this production is the flashing of the football scores on the super titles in the theatre during the run of the opera.

Besides the repartee of the backstage flirtations, there is another element of comedy concerning the frequent cell-phone disruptions during rehearsals, reflecting a commentary on today’s obsession with social networkng.

San Diego is not new at producing premieres of contemporary operas or some classics that have never been performed in North America. Since 1967, there are eight premieres on the record.

Among the previous premieres by San Diego Opera, there were three that deserve special appraisal: A commissioned opera by Alva Henderson, “Medea” in 1972; the 1969 American premiere of “The Young Lord” by German composer Hans Werner Henze; and the U.S. premiere of a unique opera in 1994 by Mexican composer Daniel Catán, “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

Why were these operas so special? By doing American premieres, the young company gained national recognition for its support of contemporary opera and its insights into the future. The innovation continues today.

The cast is headed by two international opera luminaries, Frederica von Stade and Nathan Gunn in their SDO debuts. Kate Aldrich who appeared here in 2008 sings the lead role of Arden Scott. Other debuts are Joyce El-Khoury as the ingenue soprano and Garrett Sorensen the high-strung tenor doing the bel canto opera. Counter tenor Anthony Ross Costanzo provides humor as stage director of the bel canto opera in his SDO debut.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Joseph Mechavich who has worked with Heggie on other operas. Stage director is Jack O’Brian, formerly of the Old Globe Theatre, and an award-winning New York theatre director.

“Great Scott” is sung in English and Italian with both texts projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7:00 p.m. on May 7, May 10 and May 13; 2:00 p.m. on May 15. For ticket information call (619) 533 7000 or visit http://www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the company archive at San Diego State University.

Jake Heggie

Composer Jake Heggie

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