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Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing wasn’t really a theory, but rather a maxim, which could be summed up as “show, don’t tell.” For UrbanArias’ Three Decembers, librettist Gene Scheer’s maxim is tell, show, then tell some more. When adult siblings Bea and Charlie are upset at their mother, Maddie, for hiding something from them, they tell their mother how they’re feeling (upset), then tell her why they’re feeling that way (because she hid something from them). Maddie then tells her children why she hid this hurtful thing from them (because it’s hurtful). Then everyone tells everyone else how upset they are again.
An unabashedly schmaltzy chamber opera, Three Decembers has emotion to spare, but little in the way of subtlety, mystery, metaphor, or any of those other literary tricks by which authors signal to their audience that they trust it has a collective IQ above 80. There’s no shame in mining well-worn dramatic tropes, particularly in an art form as old as opera, where stock characters and clichéd plots can be excused as convenient vehicles for beautiful arias. But if you’re a company dedicated to new opera, rather than one that puts on Carmen every year, a little boundary-pushing doesn’t hurt.
Three Decembers is, technically, a new opera, albeit one that treads on pretty well-worn dramatic territory. Or, as the Houston Grand Opera put it when they premiered it in 2008, a “universal story about the family we wish for and the family we wind up with.” Maddie, a narcissistic-yet-insecure aging actress and bad mom trying to be good, is essentially the same character Sally Field played in Soapdish—-that is, a movie that was a parody of a soap opera starring Sally Field doing a parody of herself.
Except in this case, there’s no satire and no self-awareness; it’s a soap opera parody that doesn’t realize it’s either a soap opera or a parody. Everything is earnest and serious, from Charlie’s unseen partner dying of AIDS to Bea’s dilemma over what to wear to the Tony Awards. In the end, you’re left with the impression that you should be feeling a deeper connection to the characters than you actually do, simply because you’ve been through 90 minutes of them being nice, then not so nice, then nice to each other again.
So it’s disappointing that the undeniably talented team behind Moby-Dick, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Scheer, could fall flat with Three Decembers. Perhaps it’s the smaller scale. Or it’s the source material, a play by Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!). Even Heggie’s music doesn’t save it, though it’s the most compelling aspect of the production. It’s a spare, pleasing composition that marries impressionism, minimalism, with a touch of jazz that nevertheless is, like the libretto, a little too obvious: Plaintive woodwinds mimic the characters’ whining note-by-note; the big surprise is heralded by a boom from the timpani, just in case you forgot to be surprised.
As Maddie, Janice Hall exudes the right blend of exaggerated confidence and cluelessness; she also has an oscillating vocal dynamic that works little crescendos into nearly every line, kind of an operatic upspeak. Emily Pulley, as Bea, has a voice that could be described as powerful or strident, depending on your taste; she is clearly comfortable in the role, though she disconcertingly looks less like a beleaguered daughter and more like Cheri Oteri doing an SNL impression of an opera singer playing a beleaguered daughter. Michael Mayes is sympathetic as Charlie, the gay son Maddie never really understood; his bitterness and resentment convincingly come through his stout baritone.
Three Decembers is sappy, for sure, sappy enough to draw audible sniffles at Saturday’s opening at Artisphere. That the most moving moment is a duet between Bea and Charlie that’s premised on a lie is a nice ironic twist. And, as it turns out, the only twist you’ll get in an otherwise familiar, or universal, dysfunctional family portrait.
The program repeats Friday, October 3 and Saturday, October 4 at 8:00 pm at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn. $26 – $28.
Photo by Colin Hovde