Three times a charm when the Little Opera Company presents the Canadian première of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, which shines a spotlight on the inherently complex relationships of an all-too-real dysfunctional family.
Originally slated for April 2019, it’s taken the plucky troupe three attempts to get the 90-minute chamber opera (no intermission) on its feet owing to the ravages of the global pandemic. The three-show production stage-directed by Rob Herriot kicks off at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People May 27.
"We’re still in a state of disbelief, and are keeping our fingers crossed as we get closer to the finish line," LOC artistic director Spencer Duncanson says of the compact, one-week rehearsal period that includes its three-member, all-Canadian cast comprised of mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber, baritone Sheldon Baxter, and soprano Lara Ciekiewicz — all notably marking their Little Opera debuts — rigorously testing themselves for COVID-19 thrice weekly as part of the "new normal."
Initially reticent about programming the decidedly edgier work set during the AIDS crisis and premièred by Houston Grand Opera in 2008, Duncanson quickly realized Heggie’s opera with its potent message of forgiveness — not to mention its ear-pleasing, melodious score including flashes of Broadway — rang with truth, and needed to be seen by lucky locals.
"I think audiences will see a bit of themselves in how these characters work through their relationships, as most families experience these types of conflict at some time or another. However, life also has a very beautiful side to it, and there is hope at the end," Duncanson promises.
Based on a libretto by Gene Scheer, in turn inspired by Terrence McNally’s — an early COVID-19 casualty who perished early March 2020 — unpublished play Some Christmas Letters, the story centres around a career-driven, Tony-award nominated actor and mother Madeline Mitchell, her fraught relationships with her son Charlie, a homosexual struggling to deal with the death of his partner from AIDS, Burt, and emotionally distant, alcoholic daughter Beatrice, spanning three decades at Christmas: 1986, 1996 and 2006.
Barber, who has graced stages around the world and currently teaches at Wilfred Laurier University, boasts a direct lineage to Heggie, including her close friendship of over 30 years with his legendary muse, American mezzo-soprano Frederica "Flicka" von Stade for whom the role of Maddy was originally created. Barber sings praises for her soon-to-be 77-year old mentor, whom she calls her "guiding light."
"It’s really quite poignant for me to perform this work, which is about an actress in the autumn of her career," Barber, who also sang in Heggie’s hugely successful opera, Dead Man Walking, reveals of her character self-described as a "survivor."
"When I was a young singer just starting out, Flicka was an idol of mine as the reigning mezzo-soprano of that time. There’s something quite beautiful and poetic about performing this role, which I find very touching, as Flicka has been one of Jake’s greatest champions. She’s also one of the most generous, kind, warm human beings you could possibly imagine."
Baxter, raised on a small farm just outside Calgary and is now based in Dresden, Germany, and Boston, describes his character as "a very compassionate and caring person and caretaker," prepping for his role with online research, poring through academic papers dissecting Charlie’s persona, and watching the many YouTube videos about Heggie’s opera itself, as well as embarking on a series of coaching sessions in Boston.
"As a singer, it is great being able to step into a role in a more realistic and organic way," he says of portraying a contemporary role — often a rarity in the world of opera riddled with royalty and peasants. However, crafting fully fleshed out characters poses its own unique challenges; demanding that performers straddle both worlds of "reality," and the time-honoured stagecraft of "make believe."
"You need to know how to skirt the line of how much of your own personal emotions and history to bring to the character, because this piece is very emotionally charged," Baxter says. "If I’m singing Escamillo in Carmen, that’s not going to be problem because I don’t really know what it’s like to be a bullfighter. I have to pretend as much as I can. But for Charlie, you need to strike a balance between drawing from your own life experiences, and knowing when to put the brakes on for these very, very real, and raw emotions so that listeners can still hear the voice."
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One of the Canadian opera scene’s busiest sopranos — even during a global pandemic — has been Winnipeg-based Ciekiewicz. The singer shares her own thoughts about her role debut as Beatrice, describing Heggie’s highly visceral, conversational "very American" that calls for "a lot of colour in the voice."
"My character feels like she can never really speak her truth, which is hard for anybody," the artist says over the phone. "However, those do land within the context of the story and it’s rewarding to play as an actor when you build, build, build, and then that moment of truth happens. As a singer, you have to just lean into it and trust yourself in the moment," she explains of her creative process.
It’s nearly impossible these days not to view art — and life — through a pandemic lens, including Heggie’s opera, which is also infused with tragedy’s "B side," humour.
"Three Decembers is remarkably moving and is definitely a pandemic piece for me," Herriot says. "These are real people who are trapped in their lives and that’s how so many have felt during lockdown, when they have lost loved ones, careers and relationships.
"As Charlie deals with the loss of his partner, he sings ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how this goes,’ and that to me has been the crux of the pandemic. I really want people to see themselves in this work and say, ‘OK, I’m on the right track.’ Heggie’s opera is very cathartic, and just like the pandemic, these characters do get through it, and so will we."
The production also features an 11-piece chamber orchestra led by music director Naomi Woo in her Little Opera debut, joined by assistant music director/collaborative pianist Lisa Rumpel. Sets and costumes are created by Robert Butler, with lighting design by Sean McMullen.
For tickets or further information, visit: littleopera.ca