Richmond, VA – ‘Life is like an opera’ is something I have heard many times over the course of my life. Not being very familiar with opera but being quite familiar with life, I was very happy when Virginia Opera approached me about taking a look at their performance of “Three Decembers”.
“Three Decembers” is a modern opera, written by Jake Heggie, with a Broadway twist… or is it a wonderful Broadway production with an operatic flair? In a nutshell, it is an opera about a Broadway diva and her family, centered on the diva’s annual December contact (in Christmas letters or distant phone calls). It is a family evolution that takes place over, as the title insinuates, three Decembers, 1986, 1996, and 2006.
As I looked into the story, I noticed it had Broadway written all over it. When I asked Artistic Director and Conductor, Adam Turner, the difference between Broadway and opera he pointed out that Broadway has more spoken dialog while opera is almost entirely dialog in song and verse. Turner’s vision to cast a Tony award winning actress, Karen Ziemba (received a Tony for ‘Contact’ in 2000) in the role of the Tony nominated lead character, Broadway diva, Madeline Mitchell (Maddy) was pure genius. Ziemba’s (mezzo soprano) vocals alone were worth the listen (and watch), but her Broadway air added to the immense realism of the story.
This story was not entirely about the lead character, in fact, it was more about the lives of her children, portrayed wonderfully by opera trained performers, Cecilia Violetta Lopez (soprano, in the role of daughter Beatrice) and Efrain Solis (baritone, in the role of son, Charlie) as they were conflicted by their changing perceptions of their mother as well as their mother’s changing reflections on life.
The first act was set in 1986. Charlie and Bea had just received Maddy’s (as Bea called her) annual (awful) ‘bulls@t’ Christmas letter. They hate the tradition as mom laments the fact she cannot be with them for the holiday. When Maddy appears on stage she is relaxing on the beach, writing the letter. What was great was how the sibling interaction became a conversation with a letter (being read (sung) aloud by Maddy). It was easy to notice the obvious disconnect between mother and children as the letter was read (and written). The words Maddy was writing and how she perceived them did not jive with how her children read them. Ziemba’s Broadway experience complimented the letter as, while she was ‘writing’ it, her opera vocals and Broadway attitude gave it a ‘there is no business like show business’ feel. Solis and Lopez followed up the reading with an anger and sorrow filled operatic conversation, centered heavily on Maddy’s obvious disregard for Charlie’s partner of several years, Burt, addressing him as Curt in the letter. Heggie did a wonderful job creating a melodic rift between perception and intent and the cast interpreted the words wonderfully in verse and motion.
There is a transition to a post Broadway performance interaction between Maddy and Bea. A little history behind the words in the letter is revealed and Bea questions the stories Maddy has told them all their lives. Bea condemns Maddy for her lack of compassion toward Charlie and Burt. This meeting does not end well, but the show must go on.
The final scene in 1986 takes place between Charlie and Bea, comforting each other, talking about Maddy and trying to remember their father. They had stories of their father, told by their mother, but very held few actual memories. They were young when he passed and about all they could remember was the chair he sat in. I loved this interpretation of Heggie’s work, as not only did Bea and Charlie reminisce of their father’s chair, but the shared memories were portrayed on stage while seated in father’s chair. As the lights dimmed, Bea is seen longingly touching the chair… remembering… Life is like an opera, this was an opera about life.
The second act takes place ten years later in 1996. Charlie’s partner, Burt, has died of AIDS and Charlie is in deep anguish. Maddy had seen Burt just before his passing, touching his hand, singing songs Charlie’s dad had sung to him. Maddy had told Burt seeing how Charlie loved him made her miss not getting to know him. Solis’ performance here was stellar, conveying the deep pain, sadness, and confusion into words and body language. When he curled into bed, a Maddy appeared in what I believe was a dream, and sang comforting songs as he grieved. This was a very touching moment, again showing Ziemba’s range, sympathizing with Charlie as he lay in grief. This portion of the act concludes with Maddy and Bea talk, via flip phone, about Maddy’s Tony nomination. All must come and celebrate. Bea can try on all Maddy’s clothes, just as she used to. All was not in the acting, as the production lighting here was amazing throughout. Here a grieving Charlie was in full light, with Bea at the forefront and Maddy off to the right, both in the shadows. The family separation combined with the stark shadowy contrast added to the somber mood.
Three Decembers Photo Gallery #1
The Tony pre-celebration does not go well. Charlie seems in higher spirits but Bea is drunk, angry, and miserable. Lopez’s portrayal hits home, as in body language and verse, she is able to capture the ups and downs Bea feels (almost manic) toward her brother, mother, and the lives they all live. One thing that really caught my attention in the sibling characters was how they supported each other. In the first act, Bea was very supportive of Charlie in his time of need. In this portion of the second act, Charlie seemed to be the giver of support, putting aside his grief to help Bea through hard times. They even sang and danced together, Broadway style, Charlie donned in dress and heels. Adding a local touch to the story, Bea fell to her knees, asking Charlie to sign Bea’s Playbill following a great performance in Richmond! Well done!
Of course, Maddy is late which adds to Bea’s anger. When she does finally show, an unexpected twist is revealed. Without revealing too much, Bea tells Maddy, “It means all my life I have been putting together a puzzle using all the wrong pieces”. Maddy will be alone at the Tony’s. The scene ends as Maddy is dressed in full red carpet attire, looking in the mirror, the lights go down. We have learned of a noble lie that tears a family apart… Life is like an opera, this was an opera about life.
The final act takes place in 2006. Maddy dies unexpectedly, shortly after completing her annual Christmas letter. Bea and Charlie are now at the funeral, conveying the story of the last Christmas letter and jokingly saying all how Madeline would be angry that the memorial was not at 8PM, the time the curtain rises. The artistic power of this interpretation of the opera was once again second to none, as Maddy appears, from a shadowy dressing room, silhouetted with mirror and desk. As Maddy stands turns, she walks from darkness into the light. Ziema is perfect in voice and expression as she sings of a life filled with joy, regrets, and love for her children. Lopez and Solis respond in their roles flawlessly as well, having another conversation with the Christmas letter from their mother. It was powerful.
As the letter comes to a close, Maddy returns to the dressing room table, sits, and turns and stares, lovingly to her children, one last time. Turning back to the mirror, the lights dim to silhouette, and fade to black. Life is like an opera, this was an opera about life.