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Great Scott’ Gets West Coast Premiere At San Diego Opera

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks at the challenges and rewards of staging the new opera, "Great Scott."


‘Great Scott’ Gets West Coast Premiere At San Diego Opera
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.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: 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."

"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."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: 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.


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