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'Great Scott' Gets West Coast Premiere At San Diego Opera

Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott and bass-baritone Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann perform a secene from the opera-with-the-opera of San Diego Opera's "Great Scott."
Karen Almond
Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott and bass-baritone Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann perform a secene from the opera-with-the-opera of San Diego Opera's "Great Scott."
Behind the Scenes of San Diego Opera’s ‘Great Scott’
San Diego Opera's 'Great Scott'
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks at the challenges and rewards of staging the new opera, "Great Scott."

ANCHOR INTRO: San Diego Opera is staging the west coast premiere of the new opera Great Scott. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of an opera that’s all about staging an opera. San Diego Opera's Great Scott takes you behind the scenes of an opera company trying to put on a lost 19th century opera. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with the creative team about bringing a new opera to life. Opera is steeped in tradition and the most popular ones were written decades if not centuries ago. Which means this is a rare occurrence… JOYCE EL-KHOURY: We have the composer here, in the theater, listening. No pressure. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury is referring to Jake Heggie, the composer sighted Wednesday night at the Civic Theater. He composed Moby Dick, which San Diego Opera staged back in 2012, as well as Great Scott, the production currently being directed by Jack O’Brien. JACK O’BRIEN It’s thrilling to do a new opera. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege…You are privileged to know that someone is going to entrust what is arguably the largest canvas the arts can paint on. Baritone Nathan Gunn appreciates the opportunity to create a character from scratch without a long history of other people singing the role. In this case it was a role written for him by Jake Heggie. NATHAN GUNN: Jake is a singer’s composer and that’s not often the case… as a singer’s composer he actually plays to your strengths… He knows voices and he writes for us. And the fact that he’s actually sitting in here and listening to us create, to bring to life and add flesh and blood to the stuff you put on paper is wonderful. The opera is about a struggling opera company trying to stage a 19th century lost work. It goes behind the scenes to reveal chaos, rivalry, and melodrama. It also poles fun at the opera world, and that’s something you don’t see very often says O’Brien. JACK O’BRIEN: We were stunned that it was a funny as it was. The audience sort of got it. First of all we’re all in it it’s all about us in the theater creating something brand new. CLIP It’s a disaster… it’s a rehearsal… it’s a rehearsal for a disaster. Not all the drama is on stage or backstage. The opera finds itself in competition with the Super Bowl and that leads to humor say Gunn. NATHAN GUNN: A funny moment one of my favorites is when Tatyana the very ambitious eastern European soprano sings the national anthem at the football game, the Super Bowl, it’s hilarious. CLIP Introducing Tatyana… JOYCE I don’t usually do anything funny. Joyce El-Khoury sings the role of Tatyana. JOYCE EL-KHOURY: I don’t specialize in ha ha repertoire so the comedy in this is great for me and I’m loving it but it is challenging because it’s written in a way that because she wants to show how good she is it’s all there in the writing … she wants to show off and it’s all written in the music. CLIP Singing. JOYCE She just puts herself out there she wants it so badly she’ll do anything to get it. Which brings us to the rivalry at the center of the story between Tatyana and Arden Scott, the star of the opera being staged. JACK O’BRIEN: we’re always aware of that hot breath on our neck. Again Jack O’Brien. JACK O’BRIEN: And it’s no different in the opera world, and it doesn’t matter how secure you are you can find somebody warming up in the dressing room who’s ready to sing your role. It’s delicious fun. There’s a little bit of competition and a little bit of growth in terms of forgiveness and in terms of trying to understand what we are all trying to do here. Which is to tell the truth In this case the truth involves a behind the scenes look of what it takes to put on an opera and maybe that will help make opera more accessible says soprano Joyce El-Khoury. JOYCE We as opera singers are always kind of thinking of ways in which we can bring in the general public and get everybody to get to know opera and fall in love with opera and realize it isn’t an intimidating art form… If you want to know hat it’s like to be an opera singer… this is the show to watch. Gunn thinks audiences are more than ready for this kind of modern opera. NATHAN I think they are very welcoming to it. In fact I think they want it more than ever before the thing about opera right now is it needs to be in my opinion relevant…. Arts competing with sports proves to be a very relevant topic and Jack O’Brien is thrilled to be coming back to San Diego to bring Great Scott to audiences. Beth Accomando KPBS News. Great Scott has three remaining performances: tonight (Tuesday), Friday and a Sunday matinee. Check out Beth’s video at kpbs.org-backslash-cinema-junkie.

‘Great Scott’ Gets West Coast Premiere At San Diego Opera
GUESTS: Jack O'Brien, director, "Great Scott" Beth Accomando, arts reporter, KPBS

San Diego Opera is staging the West Coast premiere of the new opera by Jake Heggie, "Great Scott."

Heggie composed "Moby Dick," which San Diego Opera staged in 2012. His latest, "Great Scott" (with libretto by Terrence McNally), tells the story of the production of a lost work by American Opera. Its star, Arden Scott (Kate Aldrich), is at a turning point in her life: She's divorced and is returning to her hometown to help the struggling opera company run by her mentor. But the opera's debut is up against the Super Bowl coming to town.

"Great Scott" proves to be something of a homecoming for the director, Jack O'Brien, who served as the artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre from 1981 to 2007.

Opera is steeped in tradition and one thing you don't see very often is an opera that pokes fun at the genre. But "Great Scott" does just that with an engaging sense of fun. It winks at backstage melodrama and the challenging rehearsals where technical problems — like an actor hanging on wires — can be daunting.

"The opera that they are putting on is a 19th century piece that has been lost — no one has ever seen it," O'Brien said as a singer dangles from wires on stage during a recent rehearsal. "And in the middle of it, the God Amour comes down with a message."

The character proceeds to get stuck, a scene that draws laughter from the audience.

O'Brian said, "We were stunned that it was as funny as it was, the audiences sort of got it."

Baritone Nathan Gunn appreciated the humor.

"A funny moment, one of my favorites, is when Tatyana, the very ambitious Eastern European soprano, sings the national anthem at the football game," Gunn said. "It’s hilarious."

"I don’t usually do anything funny," said Joyce El-Khoury, who plays Tatyana. "I don’t specialize in 'ha ha' repertoire so the comedy in this is great for me and I’m loving it. But it is challenging because she wants to show off and it’s all written in the music."

Just thinking of El-Khoury's rendition of what her character calls "Starry-Spangled Banner" makes O'Brien smile.

"English is not her first language but she’s a can-do girl and they want her to sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at the Super Bowl," O'Brien said. "The problem is she sees it as a kind of opportunity to fill with embellishments because she doesn’t know it and the version she comes up with causes more than fireworks."

Tatyana also provides fuel for backstage melodrama as she tries to get ahead and displace the show's star.

"We’re always aware of that hot breath on our neck and it’s no different in the opera world," Obrien said. "It doesn’t matter how secure you are, you can find somebody warming up in the dressing room who’s ready to sing your role. It’s delicious fun. There’s a little bit of competition and a little bit of growth in terms of forgiveness and in terms of trying to understand what we are all trying to do here, which is to tell the truth."

(L-R) Bass-baritone Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann, mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott, soprano Joyce El-Khoury is Tatyana Bakst, and tenor Garrett Sorenson is Anthony Candolino in San Diego Opera's "Great Scott," an opera about putting on an opera.
Karen Almond
(L-R) Bass-baritone Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann, mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott, soprano Joyce El-Khoury is Tatyana Bakst, and tenor Garrett Sorenson is Anthony Candolino in San Diego Opera's "Great Scott," an opera about putting on an opera.

In this case, the truth involves a behind-the-scenes look of what it takes to put on an opera and how maybe that can help make the genre more accessible.

"We, as opera singers, are always kind of thinking of ways in which we can bring in the general public and get everybody to get to know opera and fall in love with opera and realize it isn’t an intimidating art form," El-Khoury said. "You just have to go."

Gunn thinks audiences are more than ready for this kind of modern opera.

"I think they are very welcoming to it," he said. "In fact, I think they want it more than ever before. The thing about opera right now is it needs to be, in my opinion, relevant."

Modernness makes the opera relevant and exciting.

"It’s thrilling to do a new opera. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege," O'Brien said. "You are privileged to know that someone is going to entrust what is arguably the largest canvas the arts can paint on and it’s ironic that it’s done swiftest. It’s done basically in a minimal amount of time. We have very little time to rehearse. We have very little time to tech."

Three weeks is all the time San Diego Opera can spare for the process, which makes the end result all the more amazing.

"Great Scott" will have three remaining performances on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.