A Word From The Librettist: Terrance McNally on Great Scott

Classic Arts Features   A Word From The Librettist: Terrance McNally on Great Scott
The Dallas Opera collaborates to create an "American" opera.

You will hear the adjective "American" many times during this performance. Great Scott is an American opera and proudly so. Jake Heggie and I have tried to tell the story of what it means to be any kind of artist in experience or vernacular. Porgy and Bess has probably come the closest but still no cigar.

Our previous collaboration in the artistically (and financially) challenged arena of American opera was Dead Man Walking which premiered in San Francisco in 2000. That opera was based on the true story of a remarkable woman, Sister Helen Prejean, and her selfless, courageous passion for social justice. Her story had all the elements of Grand Opera: love, death, risk, redemption. We asked the audience to take an often harrowing spiritual journey with us. We succeeded to the extent that there have been numerous subsequent productions here and abroad. Companies clamor for a world premiere; everyone loves them. It's the second production that is hard to come by. Most new operas never get them. The stakes are high.

When The Dallas Opera offered us the opportunity to collaborate again, we accepted with pleasure and alacrity. Fresh off the tremendous success of Moby-Dick (text by master librettist Gene Scheer) which premiered in Dallas in 2010, Jake was eager to launch his next opera with a company that embraced American composers with their un-proven, un-tested American operas and provided all its artists with an environment that was conducive to creating something fresh: in other words, a company that was not afraid to risk failure. Any opera company can produce another Traviata. It takes a very special breed of one to produce Great Scott.

Great Scott is an original American opera. It is based on nothing. The characters and their situation will be unfamiliar to you. When you attended Moby-Dick you probably brought your idea of what Captain Ahab, Ishmael or Queequeg should or would sound like along with you to the Winspear. It is my belief that Jake and Gene did not disappoint you and my hope that Jake and I will do the same with these unfamiliar characters of whom you have no preconception. We are asking you to lean forward and listen to them. There's a lot to take in: new people, an unfamiliar story, new music. If we have succeeded, sitting back and enjoying will be for your next experience of Great Scott but not this time.

By the end of the performance, of course, we hope you will be fully invested in Arden, Winnie, Sid and Tatyana and the outcome of their story. We want you to take them home with you. Art that does not connect with an audience is all too common in these fractious times. What is American opera? Is it Sweeney Todd, Show Boat or Carousel? Is that even a relevant conversation in the 21st Century? Is opera itself still relevant? Does the world truly need or want another revival of an obscure Donizetti misfire? Why not Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra? It was good enough to open the New Met, which is already an Old Met. Where is opera in the American DNA? The arts are struggling, all of them. It is the people who work in the arts responsibility to face these challenges but how?

This is the dilemma of Winnie Flato and her beloved, necessary American opera. This is the passion of Arden Scott, to make her life and choice of career matter, to herself most of all but also to you, the audience. This is something Sid has paid next to no thought of but at a price: what kind of world will his son inherit? This is an art form on which the next big thing in opera, Tatyana Bakst, will make her mark, regardless of whom she tramples on her way to center stage. These are life and death issues for American opera and the people who make it.

I confess to wincing when I have heard Great Scott described as a "comic" opera. I suppose any opera is comic when the death toll is zero at the final curtain. It is an opera, nothing less, nothing more. It is an opera that wants to include as much of contemporary American life outside the often insular world of the opera house as it can. Super Bowl is not a joke in the world of Great Scott. Someone has to pay for the next big Rossini revival and it isn't going to be our Federal government. The composer and his librettist take all this very seriously. Still, appropriate merriment as the story unfolds will be appreciated. Of course some people find Mad Scenes hysterical. Jake and I are not among them.

Finally, it is no secret that Great Scott was written and composed for the luminous American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato. It is not about her but it was inspired by her artistry, her beautiful : now joyful, now plaintive voice and her unstinting commitment to music, new and old. Yes, there are probably traces of her in Arden Scott, just as there are traces of me and Jake. We are all in this together and have been since the get-go.

Frederica von Stade is a legend. When she asked Jake and me "if" she could be a part of Great Scott we literally pinched ourselves black and blue. Our collaboration with her on Dead Man Walking and her unique contribution to the pivotal role of Mrs. De Rocher will never be forgotten.

Charismatic, wonderful baritones like Nathan Gunn will always be a privilege to write for and in the person of Ailyn P_rez we chose an emerging soprano on the cusp of an important career. We have a cast to equal Bellini's Puritani Quartet.

Vittorio Bazzetti is a 19th Century Italian composer whose operas are unfamiliar to you. He is 100% the invention of Jake Heggie and myself. How he came to be an essential part of a 21st Century American opera is the best notion of what Jake and I have been up to these past four years.

The Dallas Opera was bold to commission us. They are our Super Bowl. For them, for all of us, maybe that cigar this time.

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