Back in the 18th or 19th century, trusty composers would frequently sit up nights crafting masterworks to show off the operatic stars of the day. Even if Handel or Rossini weren’t penning a love letter to Senesino or Colbran, they could often be found fine tuning existing arias to suit the vocal foibles of the latest change of cast. You might be right in thinking that tailor-made opera went out of fashion in the last 100 years as the composer became king and singers had to increasingly screw their voices to the sticking place to satisfy the musical demands of the latest musical dictator. So perhaps it’s apposite that when the great American composer Jake Heggie decided to create Great Scott for the great American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, he came up with a sparkling modern-day opera buffa about a 21st-century diva getting to grips with a rediscovered bel canto gem.

Joyce DiDonato and the cast of Great Scott. All photos by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera.

DiDonato has long been a Heggie fan, their relationship going back to 2002 when the then rising star singer gave the New York premiere of Dead Man Walking, Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally’s operatic take on Sister Helen Prejean’s searing exploration of the death penalty in America and the moral issues surrounding it. “We became quite close both as friends and as musical partners,” says DiDonato whose championing of the composer can be heard on a couple of recital discs as well as on the 2010 Warner recording of Dead Man Walking for Houston Grand Opera. “I’ve done a number of his pieces, commissioning several new works, and recorded a number of pieces. Through all of this, he always said he wanted to write an opera for me – and we finally had the opportunity!”

A number of ideas were discussed but one thing in particular was important in DiDonato’s mind. “I pleaded for him to write me a comedy,” she says, advocating a genre she considers something of a “missing link” when it comes to modern opera. “But then I back tracked and begged him to scrap that idea and write me a character with a classic mad scene instead! The brilliant Jake (together with the divine Terrence McNally) managed to give me both indulgent requests!”

Ailyn Pérez and DiDonato.

Described by DiDonato as “a generous, melodic love letter to the world of opera and art”, Great Scott is very funny indeed, as anyone listening to Dallas Opera’s scintillating live recording will immediately attest. A work of pure fiction, the opera is set in the hometown of high-flying American diva Arden Scott who has come home to save the company that launched her international career with a performance of a rediscovered bel canto ‘masterpiece’. There’s only one problem: opening night clashes with a major football match for the Grizzlies, the local football team. With ruthlessly ambitious sopranos and vain tenors, there’s a great deal of what you might expect to be going on behind the scenes, but there’s also a freshness and a willingness to laugh at – and even embrace – many of the operatic clichés we think we know so well.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime to compose Great Scott for Joyce and this stunning dream cast!” says Heggie (the line-up also includes Ailyn Pérez, Nathan Gunn and one of DiDonato’s own self-confessed role models: the seemingly ageless Frederica von Stade). “In addition to capturing the busy, contemporary world of these characters, I had to become Vittorio Bazzetti and compose his long-lost opera Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei. What composer wouldn’t want to take that on? Our starry cast delivered riveting, indelible performances and the audience embraced it whole heartedly. I can’t tell you how good it was to hear an opera audience laughing out loud and bursting into applause throughout the evening.”

DiDonato and Frederica von Stade.

But it’s not all rehearsal room hijinks and backstage shenanigans. There’s a serious side to Great Scott as well, not just in the romantic sub-plot in which Arden hooks up with an old flame, but also in its examination of the personal sacrifices that artists are often forced to make if they want to sustain a top-level career. It’s an emotional challenge. Like the in-demand Joyce DiDonato, Arden Scott is a singer at mid-career facing issues like what roles to take a chance on next, how to keep at the top of her game and whether the personal sacrifices she has made have been worth it. “It was a very cathartic, very vulnerable role to perform and to experience for that very reason,” DiDonato admits. “Her story hit quite close to home in many ways – but not all. I think the thing we share most closely is the desire to matter, to make a difference with the music. I’m not sure Arden is clear on how to manifest that in her life, as she seems to carry more uncertainty in her. Perhaps it was going into that world that prompted me to become more clear on the contributions I want to make in my singing and in my life, and to be sure I’m giving it all I have, so that in the end I know I attempted everything I wanted to, and gave everything all that I have.”

With Heggie channelling Rossini to build the timing of the comedy into the music, that left Arden’s personal journey – “confronting her desire to matter, and fearing that in the end, she may not, in fact, matter” – as DiDonato’s greatest challenge. “After all the sacrifices she made her in life, would she have actually made a difference? These are questions that I think most artists confront in their lives, and it was quite intimidating to face them in front of a live audience.”

Having said that, there was a lot of fun to be had playing with and in some cases puncturing the great operatic clichés. At one glorious moment, Arden breaks off in the middle of a particularly fiendish bit of coloratura in one of Rosa Dolorosa’s bel canto arias. “This shit is hard!” she laments, a line that DiDonato puts right at the top of her list of favourite lines. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” she says.

Rodell Rosel, Michael Mayes, von Stade and DiDonato.

You could describe Great Scott as heart on sleeve, but McNally’s enjoyable libretto resolutely resists becoming mawkish while Heggie, who’s never afraid of a good tune, proves equally adept at avoiding schmaltz. “I love that Jake’s primary focus is that of a storyteller,” explains DiDonato. “He wants to convey the truth of each character’s journey, and that dictates the musical language and pacing. He also loves the human voice and wants to show it in all its beauty, so he does not shy away from a beautifully sculpted vocal line, which is heaven for us singers!”

In fact, although the music for the fictional Bazzetti’s long-forgotten Rosa Dolorosa: Figlia di Pompei is rather cleverly pastiched, it’s never slapped on with a trowel as you might expect. “[Jake] did not feel constrained to simply imitate Bellini or Donizetti,” explains DiDonato. “He felt very free to sculpt it as Jake Heggie, and I think he succeeded mightily. It feels organic, and yet timeless. I think part of the genius of it was that he incorporated themes and leitmotifs throughout the rest of the opera as well, so the weaving of these two worlds becomes quite seamless, yet utterly distinct.”

“I do remember Jake calling me one day and crying, ‘I have such a new-found respect for Rossini – writing “funny music” is way harder than anything else I’ve ever done!’” she recalls. “I think he succeeded masterfully, as the live audience’s uncontrolled laughter on the recording demonstrates.”

Nathan Gunn and DiDonato.

Of course, Great Scott is first and foremost a new opera and, as anyone who’s tried can tell you, developing such a complex beast with so many components is about as tough as it gets when you’re in the business of creating art. Such birth pangs also have a way of bringing people together. “As Arden speaks about in the beginning, the fear and nervousness of giving birth to a new opera is very real, and very daunting,” says DiDonato. “It is a momentous task, and one that involves total commitment from all involved. Luckily, we had that, and we became a real family during this process.”

With wit and wisdom as well as the manifold pleasures of a riotous opera within an opera, there’s a great deal to be enjoyed about Great Scott. Towards the end of the opera, the ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti appears to Arden Scott to offer some musical insights into his opera, to engage in some frank career talk and to encourage a bit of artistic risk taking. So, in a world where such things are possible, who would Joyce DiDonato like to receive a visitation from? “I think it would be Handel,” she declares. “I’d want to know how he understood the psychology of women so deeply and so completely.”

Until then, you’ll have to content yourself with a slice of Bazzetti served up by Jake Heggie and the uniformly excellent cast of Great Scott.

Great Scott is now available on Warner. 

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