Arts and Culture

A family matriarch who quite possibly cared more about her stage career than her children. A gay son whose lover is dying of AIDS. An alcoholic daughter in an unhappy marriage.

These are the stories traced over the course of three decades by Kentucky Opera’s newest production. “Three Decembers” by American composer Jake Heggie is based on an original script by playwright Terence McNally, who also collaborated with Heggie on his opera “Dead Man Walking.”

“Three Decembers” premiered in Texas in 2008 and has become one of the most widely produced contemporary operas.

This production stars renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Maddie, a Broadway diva whose grown children accuse her of being too committed to her career. Graves is best known for “femme fatale” roles like the title character in “Carmen” or Delilah in “Samson and Delilah,” and it’s a rarity to see her in a smaller production like “Three Decembers.”

The choice to feature an African-American cast — not the original concept when the opera was written — was made by former Kentucky Opera general director David Roth, who was slated to direct this production. After Roth died unexpectedly in July, Bill Florescu, general director of the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, was brought in to stage direct in his place. While Florescu said he never discussed the concept with Roth, he thinks the casting choices play up the unifying factors in every family story.

“The issues that Jake [Heggie] raises in the piece are not those of race, they’re more of family relationships, the AIDS epidemic and alcoholism, and loss and secrets, so I think what’s really brought out by having an African-American cast is the universality of what all of us go through as human beings,” Florescu said. “It’s not a black issue or a white issue, an Asian issue, it’s a universal issue.”

111015-ky-opera-3-decembers-163Bill Brymer

Denyce Graves

“Three Decembers” is also an opera that might be attractive for theater-goers who don’t usually attend the opera, Florescu said.

“Jake Heggie is at the forefront of what I would call New American Opera, which is basically writing music that’s unique, original, but also accessible to audiences,” Florescu said. “A lot of times, one doesn’t say this about a new opera, but I think this is a great first opera for somebody.”

The performances will be in English with the words projected above the stage. More information can be found here.

Tara Anderson is the host and producer of Five Things, a podcast about the objects that tell our stories.