By Pat Launer
Jack’s back! The beloved former artistic director of The Old Globe (1981-2007), Jack O’Brien returns to San Diego to direct the West coast premiere of “Great Scott” at San Diego Opera, a co-production with The Dallas Opera.
Well, Jack was, of course, in Dallas last October for the world premiere of the new opera by Jake Heggie, whose glorious production of “Moby-Dick” came to San Diego in 2012.
“It’s so entertaining, so fresh and original,” O’Brien, a three-time Tony Award-winner, says of “Great Scott.” “And it’s very very funny — unless you’re in opera!”
The show pokes fun of some of opera’s stereotypic personality types and conflicts, egos and excesses.
The diva is Arden Scott, an international star (recently divorced) who returns to her home-town to help save the opera company that launched her career. She brings with her the score of a long-lost 19th century Italian opera, convinced that a triumphant production of the forgotten gem will end the company’s financial crisis. But she has a few other problems to face: an old flame, and an unexpected conflict with, of all things, the Super Bowl; the home-team is playing at-home on the same night as the opera premiere.
The opera-within-an-opera gives composer Heggie the chance to create both 19th and 21st century music. And all the convoluted relationships offer playwright Terrence McNally (“Master Class,” about opera star Maria Callas; and the Tony Award-winning librettos for “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) plenty of fun-filled fodder for the libretto (McNally also created the libretto for Heggie’s first opera, “Dead Man Walking”).
O’Brien and McNally worked together on “The Full Monty” and in 2014, McNally’s theater-centric comedy, “It’s Only a Play.” Jack added celebrated Irish-born scenic designer Bob Crowley to the mix. On top of all this, one of the performers happens to be an opera legend: Frederica von Stade, world-renowned American mezzo soprano.
So it’s quite a confluence of luminaries.
“The music is so beautiful,” says Jack, “and the production is quite gorgeous. I absolutely love the piece. And I think it’s about so many things: the conflict between sports and art; the pressure of raising money; the passage of time and the re-consideration of old relationships.
“It’s a pretty accurate picture of what we’re all going through in life, in one way or another,” says Jack. And he’s quick to add that the new work is not a spoof of opera.
“I think it’s a valentine. The arts are very close to ridiculous in terms of the demands they make and the time given to create them. This work is paying tribute to our own community, and the sacrifices made in the name of the art.”
Working on the piece was exciting and enthralling for him.
“Just to watch Frederica listen to the music, and to other singers, with love, attention and appreciation, is such a joy. I’m mad for her. And she’s effortlessly funny.”
“In the opera, Arden is coming back to where she started,” says Jack, “and that certainly resonates with me. My residency at the Globe created me and shaped me. Believe me, I understand debt.”
“Great Scott” offers additional resonances for San Diego: the financially struggling opera company, the tug-of-war concerning whether local money goes to the arts or to local ball-teams and stadiums.
Given scheduling and other issues, four new singers, who were not in the original cast, will perform in San Diego, including in the lead role of Arden, which will be sung by American mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, who made her SDO debut in 2008 as Elizabeth in “Maria Stuarda.”
American baritone Nathan Gunn makes his company debut as Arden’s high school boyfriend. Also a first-timer at SDO, Ms. von Stade plays Arden’s mentor and the primary benefactor of the local opera company. Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury makes her local debut as an ambitious young soprano (think “All about Eve”). The conductor for this production will be Joseph Mechavich, who led the San Diego Symphony for “Moby-Dick” in 2012 and “Nixon in China” in 2015.
Reviews of the Dallas premiere praised the “lush,” “elegantly alluring,” “adroit and complicated” music, the unusual structure of having two mezzos as leading ladies, and the “screwball comedy coupled with romance and melodrama.” But there was one recurring criticism: the 3½ hour length of the piece.
Since then, the opera has been trimmed “quite a bit,” according to O’Brien. “There were certain longueurs that needed to be attended to, and sections that both Terrence and Jake felt could and should go. We even took some laughs out. We thought, ‘Enough already!’ I’d actually like to see even more rewrites. But considering the breathlessness with which we’re hurling this onto the stage, we did the best we could.
“There’s less time to put up an opera than any other artform,” Jack laments. “There are no previews. What’s the possibility of getting it right on the first stroke?”
This isn’t O’Brien’s first time with the San Diego Opera; he directed “The Lighthouse” in 1986 and “Porgy and Bess” in 1987. But he’s helmed tons of musical theater premieres, both in San Diego and on Broadway. His next: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” set for a spring 2017 New York opening.
At age 76, Jack remains ever-ebullient and eternally tireless. Even he admits that he’s been “unbelievably busy,” and is a little incredulous that his commitments are “doubling in intensity.” He’s booked “deep into 2018 without a break.”
But he’s grateful for the work, his health and his stamina. And we’re happy to welcome him back.
- The San Diego Opera will present the West coast premiere of “Great Scott” for four performances only, in the Civic Theatre downtown
- Performances are Saturday, May 7, at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, May 10, at 7 p.m.; Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m.
- Tickets are available at 619-533-7000 or www.sdopera.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.