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San Diego Opera Presents ‘Three Decembers’ At Patrick Henry

High school provides perfect venue for chamber opera

Photo credit: Karli Cadel

Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade is Madeline and soprano Kristin Clayton in Beatrice in San Diego Opera's "Three Decembers." March, 2019

San Diego Opera will be staging its dētour series chamber opera "Three Decembers" at Patrick Henry High School’s new PHAME auditorium.

What do you say when a professional opera company wants to stage a production at your high school?

"Wow, amazing! I was giddy," said Matthew Kalal, still reeling from the fact that San Diego Opera chose Patrick Henry’s new theater for its "Three Decembers" chamber opera. Kalal teaches instrumental music and tech theater. He described what the school previously had for a theater as "an elementary school style 'cafetorium.' With folding chairs and that’s what the school had since it opened in 1968."

The journey to a new theater began in 2008 when an after-school project had kids design something the school needed. That eventually led to real discussions for a new theater. Then bond measures and community support took the project from small renovations to a state-of-the-art facility, which they dubbed PHAME, an acronym for Patrick Henry Arts Media and Entertainment.

"It’s been an amazing experience," Kala said. "Just the last couple days, like this afternoon, I had the advanced choir class, I talked to the stage manager and arranged to have them watch part of the rehearsal between the orchestra and the singers and then I asked, 'Hey, is it possible after they get done with the rehearsal ...,' and they were so nice all three singers came and talked with them and it was thrilling. It was the kind of thing that gets kids excited about it."

And that’s exactly what San Diego Opera’s dētour series is meant to do, reach new audiences. The dētour series looks to anything that goes beyond what we think of as traditional opera. But in a bigger sense it reflects the opera’s new directive of taking a path that’s other than ordinary, both in terms of the works chosen and the venues used. The choice of this particular venue pleased singer Kristin Clayton.

"This is amazing. I am just so impressed that San Diego had a theater like this built into a high school," Clayton said.

Mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade agrees: "This hall here is a dream. The acoustics are terrific. It is such fun being part of a high school. I applaud all the energies and the efforts to get this done and I love the fact that San Diego Opera has this affiliation because there are many pieces that should not be in a great big hall."

Pieces such as "Three Decembers," which is a modern chamber opera.

"A chamber opera just means that there are many fewer instruments. In this case there’s a clarinet, oboe, cello, violins and pianos," Von Stade explained.

Which is why the 500-seat PHAME theater is perfect.

"When I think of chamber opera I think of an opera that you can come to that will hopefully be a smaller-sized house and that you will be able to really connect with and relate to, possibly even like going to see a play," Clayton said.

"Three Decembers" was in fact based on a Terence McNally play and it’s very accessible with its contemporary storyline involving self-centered actress Madeline Mitchell, played by Von Stade.

"But she is holding a very big secret about the kids’ father," Von Stade said.

Clayton plays her daughter Beatrice.

"The past was a little bit cloudy about what happened to our dad so my brother Charlie and I communicate every Christmas through these Christmas letters that she sends us. And this year that we are in at the beginning kind of sparks some information about him that they didn’t know and it starts this trek to figure out more," Clayton stated.

Both Clayton and Von Stade created their roles with composer Jake Heggie.

"Being able to have him call me and say I gotta play something for you, what do you think? And be connected to the very beginnings of an opera is, I mean there’s just nothing like it," Clayton said.

And there’s nothing like bringing a professional production such as San Diego Opera’s "Three Decembers" into a high school to inspire a new generation of opera lovers.

San Diego Opera will be staging its dētour series chamber opera "Three Decembers" at Patrick Henry’s new PHAME auditorium.

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