By Erica Miner
Excitement reigns at San Diego Opera this week in anticipation of the May 7 west coast premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott (http://www.sdopera.org/season/2015-16-season/great-scott), directed by Jack O’Brien. I caught up with stars Kate Aldrich and Frederica von Stade (as Arden Scott and Winnie Flato, respectively) during a rehearsal break at the SDO offices downtown.
EM: Flicka, I feel so honored and privileged to have performed with you in all of those amazing roles at the Met, from Cherubino to Melisande.
FVS: It was so much fun. It’s great now, too, but back in the good old days it was different. It wasn’t all bulletproof. It’s changed. I was very lucky to be a part of it. I just treasure it. Mr. Bing. He was something else (Laughs).
EM: Kate, I left the Met before you sang there. I’m totally psyched to see and hear you in Great Scott. Would either of you like to venture a description of the opera?
KA: It’s so elusive, because you think you know what the story is about. Then the next day after a staging rehearsal you realize, no, it’s more about this theme. I think it isn’t really about any one thing. It’s about a lot of things in the life of an artist but also of people.
FVS: It’s very “person” oriented. About getting older…
KA: Yes, within the context of what an opera singer’s life is, but it’s not restricted to opera.
FVS: Right. It could be anybody.
EM: So it’s universal.
FVS: Yes, in the types of people. The baritone doesn’t really represent baritones - he represents a man.
EM: Sounds fascinating and complex.
FVS: It is. What's marvelous about it, too, is that every character is portrayed with an enormous amount of affection. There’s nothing damning, sarcastic. It doesn’t have to go as far as forgiveness. It’s great understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make up this particular world. Our world but also the world of the stage.
KA: Also love and admiration for human frailty and vulnerability. How when you allow yourself to go to that place, which in this opera happens to my character. She’s pushed to her limits to the point of coming unraveled. She lets herself go inward to find out what’s happening and rises out of the ashes as a result, which again is not exclusively for musicians or opera singers. It’s life and we are all capable of going down to the dark place if pushed.
FVS: It also doesn’t give you solutions. The piece is not like Law & Order, with a wrap-up at the end and you’re either convicted or not. It’s open ended. That’s really how life is anyway. There’s no resolution.
EM: That’s very unique for an opera.
FVS: Yes. It’s the resolution of, this might happen, that might happen. That’s not the point.
KA: Right. It’s irrelevant whether or not the baritone, Sid Taylor, and Arden end up together. That’s not really what it’s about but a means to tell the story.
EM: How do you think the audience will react to something without a clear-cut resolution?
FVS: They absolutely adored it (in Dallas). I don’t think they were expecting to have such a good time. It’s a lot of fun. They’ll talk about it. Like when you go to certain movies - what did you think? What was that all about? You talk about it and even then you don’t really come up with a period on the end of a sentence.
KA: But you’ve felt something you can’t put words to. It’s moving and touching and real. Jake as a composer is addicted to reality and portrays it beautifully, symphonically as well. Jack (O’Brien), the director, is the same.
EM: And Terrence McNally’s words - a great deal of the structure comes from him.
FVS: Very much Terrence. He has incredible passion for opera, way before Master Class. Opera speaks to him. It seems to speak to men in a way it doesn’t to women - in a very specific way, which I don’t understand. I don’t know whether it’s the sport part of it.
KA: We’re more comfortable with talking about emotion. In opera…the words are the words, but the music is the emotion underneath it. In a way it’s visceral for men. Larger than life. Usually exaggerated.
FVS: Exactly. My husband and stepsons never talk about anything except, we need to put five screws in that and it will hold. It all comes down to some sort of mechanical thing they put together that isn’t really what they want to talk about.
EM: That’s how their brains are wired. Men need action.
FVS: And events. And that’s opera. This opera is different from anything we’ve experienced.
KA: From anything I ever sang.
FVS: Absolutely. And you cannot label it a comedy. It’s not like Rossini.
KA: They say dramatic actors are often the best comedic actors. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum, but in the end they’re kind of akin to each other. It’s similar with this opera. It’s so funny, so heartbreaking at moments. But really funny.
EM: So you’ve go the gamut of emotions from one end of the spectrum to another.
FVS: At one point Jack talked about it being too funny. There were too many jokes. They’ve actually taken some out (Laughs).
EM: Since Dallas?
EM: Since you sang in Dallas, Flicka, does it feel really different to be performing it here?
FVS: One of my favorite operas ever was Marriage of Figaro, because all the people in it were so real. Every time you did it, it had that large safety net of humanity around it. It was very different every time, but always as magical. I’m really happy to find that out about this piece. I’m happy for Jake. Because to me it means this has durability, lastability. It’s different but it feels great. It’s as magical, as full, as it was. We were all like going on vacation together in Dallas. It was the first time, and that’s a bit like a class reunion. It has that element. That was wonderful, but this feels like the essence of the work is there. Jake did it. I think for a composer to cut some of his lines is really hard. It takes as much work as creating them in the first place.
EM: Yes. Writing is rewriting. Every word is like your baby. Every note, in Jake’s case.
EM: How is it for you, Kate, not having sung it in Dallas, and especially coming in virtually at the last moment, has it been a big adjustment, with people who’ve already done it?
KA: No, because it’s such a warm, lovable cast. There’s not a lemon in the group. I don’t even mean vocally but personality wise. Everyone is just lovely to work with. There’s been none of the, “Last time we did this.” Some operas like Marriage of Figaro, you might experience this. I’ve done a lot of Carmens. Sometimes the tenor is like, “When I do Don José, this is how I do it.” Less ability to adjust and try, discover new things. There’s none of that in this group. There was occasionally, “This is how we did it in Dallas,” or, “We can try it this way.” But overall I’ve never had that feeling.
EM: It sounds like a joyful experience - for you, Kate, being new to it, and for you, Flicka, having already done it.
FVS: It’s really fun. And today with the orchestra (San Diego Symphony). Ooh. Jake’s orchestrations are incredible. His melodies, and how he moves from one place to the next. Pretty darn amazing. I think everybody is especially elated today, because we heard the orchestra.
EM: We’re big fans of Jake’s here. It’s also interesting, you’ve done the opera before and Kate hasn’t, but Kate has sung here before and you haven’t. How does it feel, Kate, to be back?
KA: I love it. I’m originally from Maine. To come to a place like this with this climate…
KA: Sometimes you do these long rehearsal periods, like, I don’t want to be in Berlin for five weeks. But here it’s like, “We can have a longer rehearsal period, I’ll clear my schedule. I’ll stay as long as you need.”
EM: Flicka, this is your debut with SDO.
FVS: (Laughs) I know.
EM: How does that feel, after everything you’ve done in your career?
FVS: I’ve loved Jake’s stuff from the day I met him. I believe in him so much. I’m just thrilled that he and Terrence asked me to do it. I didn’t expect it. I thought, he does not owe me this - he’s written enough pieces for me that I’ve had the joy of doing. So when they asked me I was just thrilled. I don’t get much chance to be with all the young artists who are around. I’ll never stop loving it. It’s the most fun part. It’s almost sad when it opens and everybody goes back to their life. This is when it’s the jolliest. Just heaven.
KA: Rehearsal period is so fun.
FVS: Oh, I just love, love, love it. I get to hear these incredible young artists. My jaw dropped over Kate, how beautiful her voice is and how she has put this together in such a short time. It’s incredible. There’s not exactly nothing to do in this piece. It’s opening doors and putting on things and…I’m just so admiring. And I love the spirit. I went to Butterfly here, and was blown away by the performance. The orchestra is so good here, the chorus so fantastic. And that soprano, Latonia Moore! I thought, it’s like a Martina (Arroyo) voice, just exquisite. The performance was amazing. But the public - there were a lot of young people, all so excited to be part of it, and it was jammed. You don’t get that, you know? It’s just thrilling.
FVS: Oh, totally.
EM: What is it like to create this pivotal role in his new opera?
FVS: Jake’s operas are so well written, you really don’t have to do a whole bunch. I did the mother in Dead Man Walking. He had asked me to do Sister Helen and I said, “Jake, I’m too old. You’ve got Susie Graham. But I’d love to be in it, thank you.” Then he wanted me to play the mother of one of the kids who were murdered. I said no, I’d love to play the mother of the murderer. It enabled me to see a whole part of motherhood I hadn’t been aware of, choices you make for your children that aren’t always the best ones, that have cost them, especially when you throw poverty into the mix. So for me it was this extraordinary exploration of being a mom. In this one, too, it’s an exploration of being the “senior.” I love being the senior - a mother-like figure in the opera house that is not there because of her expertise in opera but her passion for it, who feels this extraordinary connection to this young, magnificent singer whom she has mentored and is so proud of. You’re proud of young singers the way you’re proud of your children. I mentor in that I help raise money for young kids. In one organization we have a girl, seventeen, who just got a full scholarship to Oberlin, $280,000. She’s been homeless for the last three years. You just want to burst, it’s so exciting.
EM: But difficult as well.
FVS: When you’re raising money you’re dealing with a lot of elements you have to get your head around to a certain extent. That’s a bit of who Winnie is. There’s a lovely scene where Winnie thanks the public, but it was so confusing because we went out in front of the curtain before the opera was over. I think the public thought the opera was over. There was no way to make it work. Jake said, “Do you mind if I cut it?” I said, “Oh, Jake, just to be here is my Christmas present. You can cut everything, it’s fine. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.” I believe in him as a composer. As a human being, he’s extraordinary, a most beautifully educated man, so dear. There’s no end to superlatives as far as Jake is concerned.
EM: Kate, I know Arden goes through a lot of changes. Can you describe her transformational arc?
KA: At the beginning of the opera she’s probably at the peak of her career. She’s agreed to do this opera she just discovered from the 1800s, to help raise money for her hometown opera company, where Winnie Flato is the artistic director, to keep the company afloat. Going home and rediscovering her turf. She was probably the most herself when she was making music, but there’s the part that’s the little girl, the simple life of her hometown, that shakes her up.
KA: Unexpectedly. She thinks she going to go in there, have a great time, be the hero, everyone’s going to love it because the audience that already loves her, an opera no one knows, so there’s no comparisons in terms of, “So-and-so sang it better,” but still her repertoire from the 1800s. She didn’t expect to be slapped across the face by seeing her ex-boyfriend from high school, the water tower where they had written their “Sid and Arden forever” little love note. It’s happening right at the crux of her career where she’s reached the top and wondering what’s next. She’s recently been divorced, has no children, like, “Okay, I’m here, I made it to the top. Now what?” It causes a slight downward spiral. That’s where she starts to question a lot of things. She’s under pressure to do this modern opera written for her and afraid to go into it because it’s too intense. So there’s this other story that she’s afraid to go artistically to the full depths of what she’s capable of, for fear of losing herself entirely. In the end that’s what makes her go mad. She sees the ghost of the composer of the opera she’s singing that night - for me, in her mind - telling her telling her to go for it, to do the modern opera, to take risks, take chances. And because she goes for it and throws herself into it 100% she actually comes out stronger and better. That’s where she becomes “Great Scott.”
EM: So she starts out not a risk taker.
KA: I think she’s a career machine. The sure, safe thing. But she’s attracted to the danger of the stage and theatre - you don’t know what’s going to happen from one night to the next - but never able to give herself fully over to her artistic capacity.
FVS: Anybody who’s a superstar the way she is, is taking risks all the time. Coming back and tapping into a part of you that you forgot about for so many years. The world out there when you’re at that level has got to be hard.
KA: You can’t do anything without scrutiny. We can all identify with themes in this opera. Even if I’m not Arden Scott, or my career is not at that same level as the character I’m playing, it’s kind of intimidating on some level.
EM: Art doesn’t always have to imitate life. You’re going through your own transformation, taking on this role, which is great.
[Next, Part 2: Aldrich and von Stade Get Inside Great Scott’s Characters]
Photos used with permission of the artists
Erica Miner can be reached at: email@example.com