Saturday evening I attended a performance of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers produced by Opera Fayetteville. Although I have heard of Heggie, I am familiar with his work in name only. I have not been to any performances or sought out any recordings, and I intentionally went into this performance blind. I must say that although I cannot say the work is beautiful, the performance was powerful and touching. There is an easy lyricism to the music, and it was beautifully sung and acted. The performance perfectly captured the sadness of the characters and the frustrations and loss of this family, bound up in their own stories, and unable to express their love for each other.
Three Decembers is based on Terrence McNally's play Some Christmas Letters with some inspiration from Ibsen as well. The set was minimalist, befitting an opera that revolves primarily around the interior world of the three characters: famous actress Madeline Mitchell, and her two grown children. Set as a series of letters and interactions between the children and their mother, the story is really about the often tenuous nature of relationships and the way the stories we build around ourselves define us and enslave us. In the opera we hear and feel the yearning of the characters, but also their bitterness and we feel the constraints of the walls they build around themselves, walls they are unable to cross. When some of those walls are shattered, they must rebuild, but they don't necessarily cross through the rubble to the other side.
Opera Fayetteville is a young opera company in Fayetteville Arkansas with a two-fold focus: on providing performance opportunities for young opera singers in the early stages of their careers, and performing contemporary operas in English. I am happy to learn about this organization, and I was happy to have attended a performance. I am sure there are other interesting companies doing interesting work across the country, but this is where I happened to be.
Yes, I went to Arkansas. I went to Arkansas to hear an opera I knew nothing about, in a production by an company I also knew nothing about. And I had a marvelous time. I went on a lark. I heard about the opera because George's first cousin twice-removed, Jacob Scharfman was performing in the role of Charlie. I went because I like contemporary opera. I went because I've always been interested in going places to see and hear new things. I went because I had a free weekend. I went because, although I don't know Jacob well, his late father was someone I counted as a close friend in our youth, and although our lives had drifted, I still wanted to support Jacob in this endeavor.
I went, and I didn't tell Jacob I was going. Partly this was just because I've been struggling through the shallows in the last 5 or 6 months, and am only just beginning to find my way back into the deep waters. Partly this was because I was distracted and I forgot until it was too late, the timing was too close. This was precisely because I don't know Jacob well, and I would only be there in the middle of production when the would be working, and I did not want to impose a sense of obligation, a sense that something extra was needed to meet with some distant relative through marriage that he didn't even know. Maybe this was the right choice, maybe it was wrong; I simply don't know.
I do know that Jacob is a good actor as well as an excellent singer. I do know that the audience felt the raw power of emotion when his character, Charlie, was cradling one of the shirts belonging to Burt, his partner, who had recently died of AIDS. I recalled that same feeling, known to all who have suffered a profound loss, of doing the same with George's sweatshirt. It brought tears to my eyes, and not only mine. But I also saw a young Jacob, only a senior in college when his father died almost four years ago, loss and pain etched on his face. It takes talent and guts to channel that pain and turn it into art.
Perhaps that was a bit voyeuristic, that hidden knowledge. But it was a joy to see this young man shine, to see this moving story told by three marvelous young talents. It was good to simply be there, to see and hear this performance, to see good work being done by good people in diverse places. It was good.