By John Patrick Ford

The 51st season in San Diego Opera ended on a high note with the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s new opera “Great Scott.” The audience and critics were favorable over this drama about a regional opera company’s struggle for survival, especially with competition from the local football team. The season theme of “ladies in distress” continued in the third production as the prima donna Arden Scott survived her demons about her career and renewing an old love affair with an uplifting conclusion to the opera.

This was not the case for the first two productions, “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.” Both ladies found it necessary to commit suicide as the only solution for their stressful predicaments. The popular scores of both operas by Giacomo Puccini were sure winners for audience response. The sets and costumes were impressive and the opera orchestra supported both superb casts in top form.

With a thumbs up for the 2016 season, I will focus on some of the highlights covering the three grand operas in the Civic Theatre and the three recitals in different venues. One outstanding performance by an artist was Latonia Moore in the role of Cio-Cio San, the vulnerable young geisha married to a love-them-and-leave-them naval officer. She delivered a powerful interpretation of Madam Butterfly’s rise to romantic exultation and decline into a self-imposed death. It’s hard not to choke up when the desperate girl bids farewell to her young son.

Two pre-season recitals featured the fast-rising young tenor René Barbera singing opera arias and Patricia Racette entertaining with her road show of classic Broadway show tunes. Hearing an operatic voice deliver those popular songs makes a good case for mounting Broadway shows with opera artists.

The other guest appearance was Ferruccio Furlanetto in concert at Copley Symphony Hall with arias from his famous bass roles, many of which he has sung with San Diego Opera over the last 31 years. In his first American recital, the international opera star received enthusiastic audience kudos requiring an encore.

It is not often that a regional opera company can stage the premiere of a new opera by an American composer who is in residence during the rehearsals. Jake Heggie was generous in being available for televised interviews and consultation during the final rehearsal performances. Having a conductor who is a specialist in the Heggie repertory and a splendid cast directed by an award-winning New York stage director also assured a stellar production. They did not disappoint.

The libretto by Terrence McNally, award-winning Broadway and Hollywood playwright, devised a story about today’s people having today’s problems in their personal relationships and maintaning a successful career. Uncommon for a contemporary opera, “Great Scott” provides several moments of humor along with poignant interaction among the cast members who are performing an opera- within-an-opera. The unique feature of this work is the mix of bel canto style for the opera being performed combined with the contemporary music during the backstage drama of artists in rehearsal.

Critics often accuse Jake Heggie of stealing music styles from Rossini, Bellini and Puccini. That works well in this particular opera because the bel canto opera being presented by a regional opera company group requires the sound of the 18th century composers. That also means the principal artists must be fluent in the bel canto style with all the vocal ornamentation. This cast delivered both styles with amazing skill.

In the contemporary sections of the opera, occurring mostly backstage during rehearsals, the score develops some every-day relationships among the players. The prima donna, Arden Scott, is renewing her romance with her school-days lover who stayed behind when Arden went on to an international career; the stage director for the bel canto opera, an unusual countertenor role, creates another sub-plot with an interest in the conductor; the young ambitious soprano who aspires to steal the spotlight from Arden Scott is given the showstopper scene at the opening of the Super Bowl taking place the same night as the ;premier of the bel canto opera; Arden is re-examining where her career is going in consultation with the ghost the 18th century composer of the bel canto opera who keeps appearing to her backstage or in her dressing room.

That is one of the unique subplots of the opera, but it should be taken out to help reduce the length of the opera. As with any new opera or musical, early performances provide opportunities to take cuts.

As a wrap up for the 2016 season, it can be noted that San Diego Opera survived its crisis of 2014 with a proposed balanced budget and now looks ahead to some new adventures in contemporary opera being proposed for the 2017 season and beyond. This was the last season under the old-regime planning and opens the door for the new general director to breathe fresh life into a repertory intended to attract a younger audience.


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