Knowing that Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers stars Frederica von Stade in her Chicago Opera Theater debut, and in her last operatic performances in Chicago before retirement was a terrific reason to see this production. In a role written for her by Heggie, Ms. von Stade plays Madeline, a famous actress struggling with her relationships with her two grown children. At the end, “Maddy” says, she’s glad she was here, that she lived her life. I was glad I was there, to see Three Decembers. It was an amazing evening of theater, ending with a well-deserved standing ovation.
“We feel so privileged to have Frederica von Stade perform with Chicago Opera Theater,” said COT General Director Brian Dickie. “I saw Three Decembers at its world premiere in Houston in 2008 - and I knew immediately that Chicago opera fans needed to see this moving and extremely effective piece of music theatre.”
Three Decembers is based on a short play by Terrence McNally with a libretto by Gene Scheer. Composer Jake Heggie comes to Chicago directly from the world premiere of Moby Dick at the Dallas Opera, and joins the orchestra of Three Decembers at the piano. The orchestra is conducted by Stephen Hargreaves. The production is directed and designed by Leonard Foglia, with costumes by Cesar Galindo, and original lighting by Brian Nason. Keith Parham is the lighting designer for the COT production.
Passing through Millennium Park where the Celtic Fest was taking place, we entered the Harris Theater. There were people chatting pleasantly everywhere. We were invited to be part of The People’s Opera and to vote for one of three little know Verdi opera which will be performed to celebrate the Bicentenary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth during the 2012-2012 season. I paid a dollar and added a vote.
Taking my seat, I noticed the stage, which can look very stark was more embellished, softer. I chatted with my seatmate, Tricia, who had driven in from Toronto to see this production and to attend An Evening with Frederic Von Stade and Jake Heggie on May 10th. She just loves opera. I was very impressed by her brilliant planning. She arranged to stay at the Holiday Inn near the airport to park her car, and then take the L into the city. She had spent a full day at the Art Institute, which she loved, and could hardly wait for the Three Decembers to begin, nor could we.
All of us (my companion, Tricia and I) found the production captivating on all levels. The staging was very interesting in its use of the orchestra as backdrop to the action. With just three characters, the stage seemed to be filled and it added a visual esthetic. The music was non-stop beautiful. The subject matter, the story of a single mother who was a famous actress and her adult son and daughter who are struggling to find themselves, was somewhat melodramatic, but had the ring of truth. Not present, but part of the story were, Maddy's husband, Charlie's two partners and Bea's husband and children. The highly charged and emotional themes were presented in musical language sung beautifully to gorgeous music and orchestration with lots of humor. Staging, lighting, costuming were true to the theme and lent it strength. Though minimal, every aspect was somehow expansive and offered a kind of “something from nothing”. Two of the songs I thought were exceptional was the scene about shoes and the other was Bea and Charlie walking on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Decembers in the opera, each ten years apart, exposes the audience to several of today’s challenges by means of Christmas letters. We learn about a single mother, a gay son and his partner with AIDS, a daughter married with children but with maritial problems, and a deep dark secret. The skill with which these issues were blended together within a framework that conveyed concern support, and passion was remarkable.
Almost a play, almost a Broadway show, really an opera, this unusual blend worked. This Chicago Opera Theater production marks the premiere of this final version of the score. The performance of ninety five minutes with no intermission sung in English with English supertitles reached an intensity and held the audiences total attention. It was beautiful. Due to the consummate acting of Frederica von Stade as Madeline, Sara Jakubiak as Beatrice and Matthew Worth as Charlie, I left feeling that I knew these people.
There is one problem with the production, which is the short length of its run. Potential audiences only have three more opportunities to see this, May 12, 14, and 16, 2010. As Frederica von Stade retires with grace, this is a gift to her audiences and an event certain to be remembered for a very long time.
Tickets to Three Decembers range from $30-$120.
Tickets to “An Evening with Frederica von Stade and Jake Heggie” range from $25-$80. The VIP “Meet the Stars” Package is $200 ($100 is tax deductible). COT also offers a half-off discounted student rate in most sections.
Tickets may be purchased at Chicago Opera Theater: ChicagoOperaTheater.org or 312.704.8414. Tickets may also be purchased at the Harris Theater: HarrisTheaterChicago.org or
Photos: Liz Lauren