Opera San Jose filmed this performance of “Three Decembers’ on December 3, 2020. It subsequently made it available to the streaming service of the Houston Grand Opera in December 2021. This review was based on a December 2021 stream from HGO Digital, where it may be accessed through January 9, 2022.
In the decade between Jake Heggie’s successful first opera “Dead Man Walking” (2000) and “Moby Dick” (2010), Heggie’s most ambitious operatic work, is the 2008 chamber opera “Three Decembers”. The opera is based on an unpublished play “Some Christmas Letters” by Terrence McNally, a Houston Grand Opera commission. McNally was Heggie’s librettist for both “Dead Man Walking” and his 2015 opera, “Great Scott”.
“Some Christmas Letters” deals with conflicts in the interrelationships between a Broadway actress and her two adult children. McNally encouraged Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, to augment McNally’s original play with plot points based on issues that had impacted the lives of McNally (the devastating social impact of AIDS in the 1980s) and Heggie (a father’s suicide).
Opera San Jose, the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Digital Recording of “Three Septembers”
“Three Decembers” has relatively modest requirements for an operatic performance. The opera does not present the complex challenges of traditional operatic works – large casts, choruses, full orchestras and large scenic productions – challenges that have often proved insurmountable during the Covid-19 pandemic. The opera’s cast of three singers can be accompanied by a small chamber orchestra or, as is the case at Opera San Jose, by a pair of pianos.
State and local public health authorities, reacting to the pandemic before approved anti-Covid vaccines became available, required the Opera San Jose to cancel its live operatic performances scheduled for 2020 (as happened to opera companies throughout the world).
Opera San Jose’s general director, Khari Destoor (who in the next year would become the general director of the Houston Grand Opera), planned the filming of an audience-less performance of “Three Decembers” that met public health protocols. A two-piano version of the opera was developed, eliminating the need for even a chamber orchestra. An elaborate plan that complied with all public health requirements was put into place – periodic testing, masking, sanitation protocols, social distancing, plexiglass barriers between singers, pianists and the conductor, and agreements with artists to self-isolate when not rehearsing or performing.
Two of Opera San Jose’s resident artists (soprano Maya Kherani and baritone Efrain Solis) were cast as Beatrice (Bea) and Charlie, the children of the Broadway actress Madeline. As further insurance for a successful production, to perform the role of Madeline, the services of the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, were secured.
The Three Decembers
Opera San Jose’s version of “Three Decembers” is a one act, 90 minute opera. which was filmed December 3, 2020, for later release. The story begins in December, 1986. Broadway actress Madeline Mitchell is in Barbados. She has written a Christmas letter that proves unsettling to her young adult children, Bea and Charlie, who are both in their 20s. In a telephone call, Bea and Charlie discuss the letter’s contents and their difficult personal relationships with their often absentee actress mother. Charlie is especially resentful of his mother’s expressed attitude towards his seriously ill lover, Burt.
Ten years later (December, 1996), Bea and Charlie join their mother in New York where she has been nominated for a major award. Charlie’s lover Burt has died. Bea and Charlie are disturbed to learn that she has kept from them the fact that their father had committed suicide. Yet, Madeline had developed a better rapport with Burt before his death. Charlie and Bea begin to develop a better understanding of their mother.
Ten years after that (December, 2006), Madeline has died. Bea and Charlie sort through their memories of Madeline and achieve a better understanding of her life.
Susan Graham’s Madeline Mitchell and the Three Decembers
New Mexico mezzo-soprano Susan Graham played Madeline, the self-absorbed Broadway actress. Madeline believed her acting career required the delegation of childcare duties for her two children, Bea and Charlie, to a succession of nannies. She is a widow who kept her actor husband’s suicide a secret from her children until they were in their 30s.
In the opera’s first scene (December, 1986) Madeline is in the Caribbean. Her kids are having a telephone conversation critiquing passages from Madeline’s Christmas letter. Madeline surreally appears, tropical cocktail in hand, to sing I look in the Mirror, I see me, and both of you. The aria touches on each of the opera’s themes. One is the dissonance between Madeline’s success in stage roles and her difficulty with the role of “mother” to her children. Another is Madeline’s account of a trip to San Francisco with their father and her (invented) account of the circumstances of their father’s death. Importantly, the aria reveals that she was a widow when she was Charlie’s present age (25).
That brilliantly sung aria (at times a trio with Bea amd Charlie) set the tone for the entire performance. It displayed Graham’s vocal confidence and ability to convey emotional connection (even if we are never sure whether an emotional expression is from her heart and exhibits genuine connection or is yet another example of Madeline’s superb acting.)
[Below: Susan Graham as Madeline; edited image of a David Allen photograph for Opera San Jose.]
In 1996, Madeline has been nominated for an award and both children, now in their 30s, join her to celebrate. She shocks both Bea and Charlie, who only vaguely, although affectionately remember their father, by unintentionally revealing that she has lied to them about their father’s death when they were young. Instead of his being killed in an automobile accident as she had always told them, he had committed suicide.
Despite Bea and Charlie being disturbed by that revelation, their reconciliation with Madeline begins in this second December. Graham’s Madeline sings a lullaby to Charlie, with the revealing phrase Seeing you through his eyes made me realize that I missed not knowing you as they mourn the death of Charlie’s lover Burt.
In 2006, Madeline has died in her sleep, and Bea and Charlie are together remembering her. Madeline’s spirit joins them in that final December as Bea and Charlie quote Madeline’s conclusion of the Christmas letter she wrote just before her death: “All in all, isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.”
[Below: the spirit of Madeline (Susan Graham), stands at the footlights for her final curtain; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
Susan Graham’s artistic association with Heggie and McNally was established two decades prior when she created the role of Sister Helen Prejean in the world premiere of Heggie’s first opera “Dead Man Walking” (whose librettist was McNally). Herself a performer with an extraordinary range, dramatically and vocally, Graham has triumphed in roles as diverse as Gluck’s Iphigénie [Review: Night at the Museum – “Iphigénie en Tauride” Springs to Life at San Francisco Opera – June 17, 2007] and Berlioz’ Queen Dido [Review: Susan Graham, Hymel, Antonacci in a Magnificent “The Trojans” from Sir David McVicar – San Francisco Opera, June 7, 2015 and Review: A World Class Cast for Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 13, 2016]
Nor does Graham hesitate on taking on such over-the-top characters as the Grand-Duchesse [Review: Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013] and Humperdinck’s Witch [Review: A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting production – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018.]
See my interview with her: Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham.
Efrain Solis’ Charlie and the Three Decembers
California baritone Efrain Solis brought his impressive skill as a singing actor to the role of Charlie. His lyric baritone was vocally secure, expressive, and technically proficient in the rapid-fire conversations that Charlie conducts with his sister reacting to their mother’s 1986 Christmas letter.
Brother and sister each have their personal problems, but Charlie is clearly the most distressed. His lover Burt has contracted HIV and Charlie will be his caregiver over the long years of his eventually fatal illness. Burt has been Charlie’s source of emotional comfort over the past few years. Charlie has received no such comfort from his mother, who has yet to come to terms with her son’s sexuality. She angers Charlie, when, in her letter, she misnames his partner Burt as Curt.
This leads to an extended musical passage, which Solis performed beautifully, affectingly conveying the emotional toll to himself that his mother’s indifference to Burt, whom she has met many times, has caused.
[Below: Efrain Solis as Charlie; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
I had admired Solis’ memorable performances at the San Francisco Opera in two iconic comic baritone roles, that of Mozart’s Papageno [Review: The Jun Kaneko “Magic Flute” Revived – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2015] and of Rossini’s Dandini [Review: “Cenerentola” – San Francisco Opera’s Splendidly Sung, Sumptuously Staged Cinderella Story, November 9, 2014]. This was my first opportunity to hear Solis in a principal dramatic rather than a comic role.
See my interview with him: Rising Stars: An Interview with Efraín Solís.
Maya Kherani’s Bea and the Three Decembers
Soprano Maya Kherani gave a bravura performance in the role of Bea. Much of her role lies high in the soprano range, which Kherani sang beautifully with superb vocal control.
[Below: Maya Kherani as Bea, reading passages from a Christmas letter; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
Bea wrestles with alcoholism, whose dependency is deepened by her knowledge of her husband’s infidelities. Kherani’s Bea marvels at the diamond ring her husband Sid has bought her. Unfaithful husbands bring unexpected gifts, she sings.
[Below: Bea (Maya Kherani, right) accuses her mother Madeline (Susan Graham, left) of misleading her brother Charlie (Efrain Solis, center) and herself about their father’s death; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph, from the Opera San Jose.]
In December 2006, at the opera’s conclusion, Bea and Charlie are reunited after they learn of their mother having died in her sleep after finishing her 2006 Christmas letter. Kherani’s Bea leads the final eulogy; “It wasn’t easy being her children” as she opines that Madeline loved the theater more than she and Charlie. “Not more, just differently” replies Solis’ Charlie. Kherani’s Bea continues “[The theater] gave her a wonderful life. It was her religion. Pretending was her way of forgetting. And perhaps her only way of feeling deeply.” Then Kherani’s eulogy is joined by Solis and Graham (the latter as Madeline’s spirit), in an emotionally sung, satisfying trio.
[Below: Bea (Maya Kherani, left) and Charlie (Efrain Solis, right) toast the memory of their mother; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
Maestro Christopher James Ray and Dual Pianists Veronika Agranov-Dafoe and Sunny Yoon
Opera San Jose’s resident conductor, Christopher James Ray, a specialist in contemporary opera, created a new version of Heggie’s musical score for dual pianos, performed by pianists Veronika Agranov-Dafoe (head of Opera San Jose’s music staff) and Sunny Yoong.
Adhering strictly to the Covid-19 safety protocols during both rehearsals, conductor pianists were separated from each other and the three singers by plexiglass shields, yet the resulting performance was musically and dramatically satisfying.
For “Three Decembers”, Heggie’s music and Scheer’s lyrics often combine to create a rapid conversational prosody resembling excited speech, evident in the telephone conversations between Bea and Charlie. Ray’s masterful conducting kept singers and pianists in synchrony.
[Below: Maestro Christopher James Ray; edited image of a publicity photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
Director Tara Branham
Opera San Jose’s resident director, Tara Barnham, oversaw a smooth-flowing performance,
[Below: Director Tara Branham; edited image of a publicity photograph, from Opera San Jose.]
The minimalist sets by designer Steven C. Kemp proved adequate to convey spatial distance for the 1986 scene, in which the three characters are within a few feet of each other, yet we can believe Madeline is in the Caribbean, while Bea is in Hartford and Charlie in San Francisco speaking to each other on the telephone.
[Below: in Tara Branham’s 1986 staging, Madeline (Susan Graham, center) is enjoying a cocktail in the Caribbean, while her children Bea (Maya Kherani left) and Charlie (Efrain Solis right) discuss her correspondence by telephone; edited image, based on a David Allen photograph for the Opera San Jose]
The costumes were by Alyssa Oania. The film’s executive producer was Opera San Jose’s General Director [now Houston Grand Opera’s General Director], Khari Destoor.
Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer and Terrence McNally
The Opera San Jose production was dedicated to the memory of Terrence McNally, who, ironically, had died of Covid-19 complications ten months earlier.
[Below: Composer Jake Heggie (left) with playwright Terrence McNally (right); edited image, based on an historical photograph.]
Heggie’s partnership with McNally, besides the enduring “Dead Man Walking”, also produced the witty opera “Great Scott”, which has yet to receive the full respect (and performances) it deserves [World Premiere Review: Heggie’s “Great Scott” is a Great New Opera, Hilarious, Endearing, Sophisticated, Profound – The Dallas Opera, October 30, 2015].
Heggie’s “Three Decembers” partnership with Gene Scheer resulted in further collaborations, including fashioning an opera from Melville’s “Moby Dick” which I reviewed in Dallas [World Premiere Review: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010], San Diego [Review: A Majestic West Coast Premiere for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2012], San Francisco [Review: Another Opera House Conquered – Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012 and A Second Look Review: A Bright Future for Heggie’s Magnificently Melodious “Moby Dick” – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 2012], and Los Angeles [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015].
[Below: Jake Heggie with librettist Gene Scheer; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]
Later, Heggie and Scheer teamed again to create an opera based on one of film’s most poignant holiday stories, which premiered in Houston [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016] and was performed also in San Francisco [Review: Jake Heggie’s Revised “It’s a Wonderful Life” – San Francisco Opera. November 25, 2018]. A later collaboration produced yet another new opera [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Faustian Fantasy “If I Were You” – Merola Opera Program, San Francisco, August 1, 2019.]
I recommend the Opera San Jose’s digital performance of Heggie’s and Scheer’s sophisticated chamber opera “Three Decembers” both to the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera. For information on the HGO Digital Stream, available through January 9, 2022, contact the Houston Grand Opera.