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Next Up at CFA Fringe Festival: Heggie’s Three Decembers

Classical opera director Zvulun on working with living composers

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Like the great works of Puccini and Mozart, Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers takes on family ties, tragedies, and betrayals. But the one-act opera, based on an unproduced play by Tony Award winner Terence McNally, weaves these timeless themes into a contemporary tale of fame, AIDS, and homophobia.

Playing at the BU Theatre tonight through Sunday, the production is the second offering of the College of Fine Arts 15th annual Fringe Festival, and is directed by Tomer Zvulun, a member of the directing staff of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, who has staged critically acclaimed productions of The Magic Flute, Faust, Tosca, La traviata, Carmen, and many other classical operas around the country.

Described in the Denver Post as “achingly human,” the poignant Three Decembers, composed by Heggie, whose credits include the widely praised opera Dead Man Walking, is the story of a glamorous stage actress who reveals a shocking secret about her family’s past to her two adult children, who are struggling with painful challenges of their own.

Like many of the productions on this year’s CFA calendar, McNally’s story reflects the theme of violence, as laid out in the “keyword initiative” spearheaded by CFA Dean Benjamin Juarez.

Under the musical direction of Allison Voth, a CFA associate professor of music and principal coach of the Opera Institute, Three Decembers is cast with BU Opera Institute and CFA music students: Vera Savage (CFA’16) and Amanda Tarver (CFA’12) alternate as Madeline, Ruth Hartt (CFA’11,’13) and Sonja Krenek (CFA’13) in the role of Bea, and Jonathan Cole (CFA’12) and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (CFA’12) sing the part of Charlie.

Zvulun (below) recently spoke to BU Today about the rewards of directing contemporary opera, where he draws his inspiration, and how to make opera more appealing to young audiences.

Tomer Zvulun, New York Metropolitan Opera, director Three Decembers

BU Today: Your classical opera productions have been much praised. What’s different about staging a contemporary opera?

Zvulun: The greatest thing about working on a contemporary opera is being able to speak to the composer. I can’t tell you how many questions I would ask Mozart if I could have lunch with him, but unfortunately I can’t, so I try to find the answers on my own by reading his letters and biographies. We are extremely lucky that we are able to work with somebody like Jake Heggie, a world-class composer whose music is not only wonderfully lyrical and vibrant, but who is also a sensitive storyteller who digs into the souls of his characters and shares his own along the way.

Opera audiences are notoriously demanding. Are opening nights nerve-racking? Do you have a ritual that helps you stay calm and focused?

Not really. I just hope it all goes well. Opening nights are usually the easier part since you’ve already (supposedly and hopefully) solved all the problems and brought your idea to life. I think the most nerve-racking moment for me is meeting my cast for the first time and hoping that they will be able to inhabit and sing their characters in the most honest and sincere way.

What is your relationship with the music director like, and how closely do you work together?

I always hope to work with the music director very closely. The great thing about opera is that it is a collaborative art form and your ideas and vision are shared and enhanced by so many other people: scenic and costume designers, lighting designers, the singers, the chorus, and of course, the music director. Usually, if I am lucky, I have a very close relationship with the conductor and we bounce and share ideas along the process. Allison Voth, the music director for Three Decembers, is a longtime friend of mine, and I am very excited to be able to collaborate with her on this show.

In what ways do you think McNally’s story resonates with audiences today, decades after the horrific first years of the AIDS epidemic?

Three Decembers deals with AIDS to some extent, but the reason that it resonated with me so deeply is the music and the universal story: it is a story about lies, memories and how we perceive them, and how one chooses to paint or create one’s own past. It shows a family that struggles with loss, homosexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide, and those are very charged issues that have the potential to resonate with many individuals.

Three Decembers, Ruth Hartt and Jonathan Cole, Fringe Festival Boston

Hartt and Jonathan Cole (CFA’12), as Charlie, in Jake Heggie’s haunting opera Three Decembers.

You’re working on new productions of Tosca and La traviata, which must be an opera director’s dream. What other operas would you like to direct, and why?

For me, Mozart is the genius of the 18th century and Puccini is the genius of the 19th century. I find their music and humanity deeply moving, and I hope to stage their works on a regular basis. I also have great interest in modern composers like Heggie and John Adams, and I would love to direct Heggie’s Dead Man Walking or The Death of Klinghoffer by Adams, as I find the music and the subject matter so charged and thought-provoking. The list of projects I would be interested in goes on and on, and I feel very lucky that there is so much out there that is worth hearing and revisiting.

Critics have referred to your style as Fellini-esque—is Fellini an influence? Who are some other influences reflected in your artistic vision?

Movies and cinema have always been the greatest influence on my work. Fellini was great source of inspiration for my production of Gianni Schicchi/L’Heure Espagnole at Juilliard last spring, and I guess that the New York Times picked up on that influence when they reviewed the show. Other great filmmakers that are constantly on my mind when I direct are Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Ingmar Bergman. When I think of Three Decembers, I always think of Bergman’s intense family dramas like The Silence and Cries and Whispers, movies that deal with similar themes of identity, strained family relationships, and memories.

What are some of the obstacles to drawing younger audiences to opera and what can be done about it?

Opera should never be stale and it should always tell the audience a story in the most fresh and intense way. Whether it’s a tragic love story like Lucia di Lammermoor or a magical, fantastical adventure quest like The Magic Flute, one must reinterpret and reinvent the way those stories are told. Modern audiences are extremely sophisticated and exposed to many visual stimuli; if the story is not told in a gripping, engaging way that will also resonates with their own experience, they won’t stick around for the second act.

Three Decembers will be performed tonight, October 14, at 8 p.m., Saturday, October 15, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, October 16, at 2 and 6 p.m., at the BU Theatre’s Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $7. Anyone with a valid BU ID can receive one free ticket at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600. To get to the BU Theatre, take the T’s Green Line E trolley to Symphony or the Orange Line to Mass Ave.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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