Heggie faces family dilemma in new work

Since Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were at their Attic — and antic — best families in a fix have been a major source of raw material for creative artists. Thus itís easy to understand Jake Heggieís fascination with the Mitchells — mother ìMaddy,î an ageing actress, her gay son Charlie and daughter Bea, wife of a wayward husband, the subject of ìLast Acts,î a chamber opera premiered by the Houston Grand Opera on February 29.

The Mitchells are something of a special case, for not only are they a mess as a group, but individually as well. ìMaddyî has concealed her husbandís suicide from her estranged children. Charlie, the younger, watches his partner die of AIDS, while Bea — her kids already in college — laments her husbandís philandering. Heggie found the Mitchells — the deceased husband, although absent from the work, is still part of the family — in ìChristmas Letters,î a 2001 play by his frequent librettist Terrence McNally that was given a single reading at a New York AIDS benefit. Smitten by the story, the composer asked Gene Scheer to fashion a libretto from McNallyís text.

When Heggie is on stage thereís no ìCapriccioî-style clamor — ìprima la musica e poi le paroleî — about words versus music. Heís a setter of words, a composer first of songs and then of operas and musical scenes, in which the text comes first. The new score is smooth and flows without huge ups and downs; an occasional nudge of dissonance might have made listeners more aware of the finely-wrought music they are hearing. Heggie makes it too easy for the audience, drawing them into the story with his refined sense of theater and allowing them to overlook the sophisticated music that he has written.

A young composer could not have wished for better on-the-job training than Heggie got when he joined the press wing of the San Francisco Opera in 1994. Just out of college with a stack of early songs under his arm, he was immediately involved in the companyís 1994 world premiere of Conrad Susaís ìDangerous Liaisons.î It helped him hone the skills that led to the SFO commission — and premiere — of his ìDead Man Walkingî in 2000. (It remains the most successful opera of the new century thus far.) And the star of the Susa cast was Frederica von Stade, who became Heggieís friend, muse and mentor. Heggie pays homage to the legendary mezzo in ìLast Acts,ì a two-hour study of the Mitchellsí woes.

Tailor-made for her, von Stade is in her element in ìLast Acts,î performed on a largely bare stage with an ensemble of 11 instrumentalists on risers behind her. Cesar Galindo provided her with sumptuous gowns, and Brian Nasonës lighting added to the effectiveness of shifting scenes. Von Stade relishes ìMaddyî and she accounted for the success that the work was in the eyes — and ears — of the opening-night audience that packed the 1000-seat Cullen Theater in Houstonís Wortham Center. Indeed, if there is an inherent weakness in the work, it is in the undiminished vocal splendor and still ravishing beauty of the famous mezzo, for von Stade — now 62 — will never grow old. And although Heggie admits that he can see others in the role, ìLast Actsî will survive probably only as long as von Stade is able to sing it, for the work is so uniquely hers.

In his HGO debut youthful baritone Keith Phares was a troubled Charlie, while Kristin Clayton was a trifle too matronly to be the daughter of ageless von Stade. ìLast Actsî is more Broadway than Berlioz, and von Stadeís first-act ìnumberî is the ìhitî of the work. And while the opening act is somewhat bland, Heggieís skill comes to the fore as the previously concealed truth about the suicide of husband/father is revealed in the second. In the well-balanced score each of the children has a major solo scene. Heggie writes ìbigî music, even when composing for chamber forces. ìLast Actsî is lush and listenable, warm and warming; itís accessible and affirmative in gesture. Although ìMaddy,î affirming that itís the truth that makes us free, concludes that everything ìis going to be alright,î one must wonder whether Heggie — and Scheer — have not made things a bit too simple.

The audience is asked to accept that ìMaddyî went on stage to put food on the table and shoes on little feet. No one asks whether she, convinced that ìtruth could only be touched by imagination,î was in the beginning the constant wife of which everyone dreams. Did she perhaps conceal too much in finding ìa version of our lives that we could all live with?î Does ìLast Actsî suggest that there is a [italics] truth, rather than the [italics]? Is this not rather a further ìtakeî on life as a stage, in which fiction substitutes for fact? (Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Heggieís father killed himself when his son was 10.)

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted from one piano; Heggie was at a second.

Commissioned by the HGO in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, ìLast Actsî will be titled ìThree Decembersî in future performances. Heggie has been commissioned to write a new work on ìMoby-Dickî to open the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the new home of Dallas Opera, on April 30, 2010.

Wes Blomster

image_description= Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggieís Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.
product_title=Jake Heggie: Last Acts
Houston Grand Opera
product_by=Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggieís Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.