San Diego Opera will present the west coast premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s new opera, Great Scott, on May 7. With a libretto by famed playwright Terrence McNally and direction by San Diego favorite Jack O’Brien, the anticipation for this premiere has been intense after its successful world premiere at Dallas Opera last October.
The protagonist, Arden Scott, is an internationally recognized opera star who returns to her hometown to help save the opera company that fostered her opera career, only to find a Pandora’s box of past and present challenges facing her at home. She brings with her the score of a long lost opera, convinced that with the right cast of opera luminaries a production of the newly discovered work will solve the company’s financial woes. The “opera within an opera” faces challenges other than financial when it vies for attention with the hometown football team, which competes in an at-home Super Bowl game the same night as the opera’s premiere.
The Great Scott cast is filled with outstanding singers, most of them homegrown Americans. In the lead roles are baritone Nathan Gunn, sopranos Isabel Leonard and Joyce El-Khoury and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, all SDO newcomers. Legendary international opera star Frederica von Stade will debut in a pivotal role. Joseph Mechavich will conduct.
“It’s a story that resonates with our times. Very relevant and pertinent,” says Heggie, whose Moby-Dick was a great success in SDO’s 2012 season. “One of those universal stories that will always grip people because it’s about issues people grapple with all the time.”
Von Stade’s presence will be an energizing force. “It’s amazing that she’s going to be here. She sings as much as anyone else does, not a small comprimario role or cameo. It’s a vibrant, exciting, amazing performance,” says SDO general director David Bennett.
According to Dr. Nicolas Reveles, SDO Director of Education and Community Engagement, “It’s an opera about relationships, to people and to art. Heggie’s musical style is melodic, nostalgic and clever in its atmosphere.”
“Great Scott is a celebration of opera,” Heggie says. “A depiction of the struggles we all go through when we love the arts and want to sacrifice so much for them, and what the payoff is for that sacrifice.” Heggie feels the opera’s originality made it more challenging to write than anything he has written before. “We constantly were rewriting, redoing, tinkering and changing characters, adding different dimensions to them, or to the story or plot, moving whole scenes around.”
Bennett is proud and excited about the groundbreaking premiere. “The piece is a love letter to opera, an honor to the operatic tradition. Jake is emulating other composers with his distinct voice,” Bennett says. “The fact that he had such a success with Moby-Dick, we have an audience that’s open to his musical vocabulary. I think they’ll really like this. It’s accessible in many ways – tuneful, not a stretch for people who are nervous about contemporary music.”
Regarding the opera’s combining football with opera, particularly in a city experiencing controversy over the sport, Heggie says, “They are together all the time. A lot of sports fans go to the opera and a lot of opera people love sports. We think of them as separate entities, yet they are both events that involve a community of devoted people who care passionately about them.”
Heggie sees Arden Scott as the equivalent of a quarterback for the company. “This great opera singer has to be on her game and perform at top level. She’s carrying the whole evening the same way a quarterback does in the Super Bowl.”
Bennett is delighted to be working with director Jack O’Brien. “He’s such a strong artistic force here. The opportunity for our audiences to once again see Jack have his hand in grand opera is very important.”
The general director feels that Great Scott is an important work for opera audiences everywhere. Its premiere at SDO is key, especially at a time when SDO has just mounted the “50 Years and Counting: A New Vision for San Diego Opera” donor matching campaign, with a goal to raise $1 million by the opening night of Heggie’s new opera. “Most cast members are thrilled to be able to share their experience and talent to benefit SDO’s efforts to keep opera alive in San Diego,” says Bennett, who attended the Great Scott premiere in Dallas.
Heggie sums it up: “It’s all about rooting for the home team.”