Patrick B. McGuigan
The sophomore season for Painted Sky Opera, Oklahoma City’s professional opera troupe, winds up this weekend with “Three Decembers.”
Jake Hegge crafted “Dead Man Walking,” one of the most widely performed modern American operas (adapted from the book and motion picture of the same name).
Drawing from an unpublished work by playwright Terrence McNally, Hegge unveiled “Three Decembers” a decade ago, under a commission from the Houston Grand Opera, drawing positive critical commentary and bequeathing a strong modernist opera with strong appeal. Gene Scheer contributes to the work’s artistic merit.
Three performers of strong voice and dramatic skill (deftly deliverig likable dollops of humor) bring passion and conviction to performances set for Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Civic Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
There is no “lead” among the trio – each carries an essential part with dignity and strength. Catherine McDaniel portrays Madaline Mitchell, an award-winning actress who has long been a widow, raising a son and a daughter in the hurly-burly and tempestuousness of Broadway.
André Chiang is her gay son, Charlie, angry in the story’s early stages because his mother for years cannot accept his life choices, and his partner. Some reconciliation occurs, when Madaline comes to see Charlie and his man.
Katie Bolding is daughter Bea (Beatrice), unhappy and alcoholic but a loving and supportive sister to Charlie. Bolding and Chiang’s duet at a memorable San Francisco landmark has tremendous appeal.
“The plot of ’Three Decembers’ is different from most opera plots in that it deals with modern issues in a modern way,” said stage director Rob Glaubitz in an exchange with The City Sentinel. “In addition, the characters are strong, well-developed, and nuanced. The combination creates an opera that plays more like an indie movie than anything else – poignant, funny, and enchanting.”
The story unfolds over the course of three Christmas seasons (1986, 1996 and 2006), and much of the plot pivots around Madaline’s self-centered seasonal letters.
The story is somber and often bitter, with the ring and tone of veracity witnessed in lives that can be seen in any place these days, let alone in the hyper-dramatics that is often centered around performance art.
Only a few words are spoken, making this true opera, but unlike most things deemed as such.
“Heggie’s music works well because it is so rewarding for the audience,” said Glaubitz. “Operatic music is supposed to communicate the desires and emotions of its characters in a way that the words alone never could. In ‘Three Decembers’, Heggie always hits that mark.”
Glaubitz steers a fine technical team to another strong show.
Jan McDaniel conducts (and plays piano) the orchestra of Joe Fitzgerald (Piano 2), Danielle Peterson, Jose Batty and Corbin Mace (violins), Jeremy Sheets (violoncello), Mike Geib (bass), KaDee Bramlett (Oboe/Horn), Kathryn Vetter (Clarinet), Dillan Francis (saxophone/flute) and Ryan Robinson (percussion).
The set is open, allowing glimpses of the musicians as they uplift the performers. High above them is a broad upper stage, where some important scenes take place. Close and intimate to the audience downstage at “floor” level the technical crew brings in and out simple set pieces to advance the story.
The varied support functions work so well they are not readily noticed, in the work of professionals tied to the growing “Painted Sky” family: Claire Choquette, Joe Fitzgerald, Scott Hynes, Megan Guerra, Kimberly Thomas-Cobb, Alexandria Carmon, Dayna Brown, Kallie Ford, Danielle Herrington and Keegan Rose and Becky McGuigan. Glaubitz and Barbara Fox DeMaio (Painted Sky’s executive director) are doing it right.
In the end, this particular opera – so bitter and angry in many moments – is affirming not only of the intentions behind the choices Madaline’s children have made, but of the best moments of her life. Without offering spoilers, suffice to say we see the “good Madaline” (over the top, to be sure) looking up, not down, as she enters a new arena.
“Three Decembers” has thoroughly modern profanities sung in perfect pitch, a caution worth noting before a visit to the Freede Little Theatre on Friday evening or Sunday afternoon.
This is final show for the Painted Sky Opera’s second season. Tickets are $35 for adults, with discounts for students, military, and seniors available in-person at the box office.
For good music set in a melacholy tale leavened with realistic aplomb – brilliantly delivered by homegrown professionals — this is an evening (or an afternoon) well spent.