Last Acts follows the life of a self-absorbed actress named Madeline (Maddy) and her two grown children - a daughter, Beatrice, whose unhappiness has caused her to seek comfort from alcohol, and a gay son, Charlie, whose partner is dying of Aids - as they struggle to understand and love each other. The action takes place in San Francisco, Hartford, Barbados and New York; the scenes are set in 1986, 1996 and 2006.Learning Last Acts: Where to start?
There are no recordings to consult, no synopsis in Kobbe’s Opera Book, no translating of foreign texts to do. So, quite simply and obviously, I read Gene Scheer’s libretto and learn who these characters are and how this story unfolds. Talking about the genesis of a good libretto is beyond my expertise, but suffice to say, beyond writing words to be sung, a good librettist sets the psychological tone and pacing of the entire opera without us really being aware of it. Add to the mix that when great composers partner with great librettists, nothing short of divine inspiration occurs – look at Mozart with Da Ponte (Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni) and Verdi with Boito (Otello and Falstaff). Enter Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie.
Gene is no stranger to music and the theater. In fact, I can count myself among Norah Jones, Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn who have performed songs he has written. Quite modestly he also told me at the workshop that he sang musical theater in Europe for many years – now we have a librettist who not only "gets" music but has real-life stage experience! He and Jake first collaborated on the lyric drama To Hell and Back and work so well together that after Last Acts, they will launch Moby Dick for Dallas Opera in 2010. (Pictured are Isabel Bayrakdarian, Patti LuPone, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer after the premiere of To Hell and Back.)
After I manage to get my hands on Terrence McNally’s original play, Some Christmas Letters, I quickly realize the casual genius that is Gene Scheer. Granted, he has a great place to start – McNally’s characters and words are exquisite – but as a piece of musical theater, it would result in a series of back-to-back arias. Gene does a fantastic job adapting the play and integrating separate letters to create the opening scene. We learn in the first 10 minutes exactly who each of these characters are and what their roles are within this small family. It’s sort of like a stranger being dropped into the middle of your family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It wouldn’t take long to figure out who’s the oldest child or the crazy aunt or the cousin who grew his hair long, dated models, and ran off to LA to be a rock star. Or is that just mine? Anyway, this is all to Gene’s credit.
What truly amazed me at the workshop was how the relationships of these three characters touched a deep chord in all of us present. Gay or straight, we relate to Charlie’s efforts to define and redefine his own individuality with the people who think they know him best – his family. Maddy has done the best she could coping with a huge loss and raising her children as a single parent, making very human mistakes along the way. Bea is often caught in the middle and finds ways to distract herself from her own hardships.
Having just been through the holiday season, it's no surprise that family drama makes for powerful opera. We all have it and continually find new ways to understand and love those we've known all of our lives.
Cocktail Party Tip #1
Should you run into Gene at a party while he's in Houston, here's some trivia to break the ice: He was classmates at Eastman with Renee Fleming and our own Richard Bado.