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    Three Decembers: A Musical Masterpiece for Home Viewing

    Last March the theater world suffered a crippling loss when four-time Tony Award-winning playwright, librettist, and screenwriter Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, among others) succumbed to COVID-19. Over five decades, McNally brought mainstream theater audiences along into a world that humanized and universalized LGBTQ lives and challenges.

    One of McNally’s close collaborators was San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie. After teaming up on the mega-hit opera Dead Man Walking, Heggie asked McNally if he had any other stories that could be set to music. McNally handed Heggie a script he had written for a 1999 AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall, entitled Some Christmas Letters. Heggie, who knew a brilliant dramatic story when he read it, enlisted his long-time libretto partner Gene Scheer to create the modern chamber opera Three Decembers. Spanning three decades, Three Decembers opens in 1986 with a gay son struggling with the AIDS epidemic, and an alcoholic daughter, trying to find connection with their famous actress mother.

    Offering more than a little musical theatre razzle dazzle, Three Decembers follows self-absorbed actress Madeline Mitchell—played here by internationally renowned mezzo soprano Susan Graham—and her two adult children Beatrice and Charlie over three Decembers, each a tumultuous decade apart.

    Hidden truths are revealed as the family struggles to connect as a family and come to terms with long buried secrets. The vibrant work conjures hints of Sondheim, in its overlapping melodic cadences, witty dialogue, and deep emotional wellsprings. Celebrated Opera San José (OSJ) Resident Artists soprano Maya Kherani (Beatrice) and baritone Efraín Solís (Charlie) join Graham in this world-class digital production.

    Heggie, who resides in San Francisco with his husband Curt Branom, is the composer of a string of internationally acclaimed modern operas, including the aforementioned Dead Man Walking, along with Moby Dick, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Great Scott, among others. Heggie’s If I Were You, commissioned by San Francisco’s acclaimed Merola Program in 2019, played to sold-out houses. He has also composed nearly 300 songs, as well as chamber, choral, and orchestral works, and was awarded the Champion Award from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    After OSJ’s brilliant re-staging of Heggie’s Moby Dick last season, the company eagerly invited Heggie to reunite with OSJ for this deeply personal piece. The parallel of today’s COVID-19 pandemic with the terrible devastation of the AIDs epidemic made its timing uncanny and Heggie happily allowed OSJ to produce the work, where it was staged and recorded last month under strict COVID protocols. Susan Graham—for whom Heggie wrote Sister Prejean in Dead Man Walking—accepted the leading role reuniting the pair, who were delighted to collaborate on this complex and deeply rewarding work.

    Determined to support its artists and continue presenting art during this pandemic, OSJ General Director Khori Dastoor envisioned this pioneering production as an opportunity to utilize the know-how of the company’s Silicon Valley environs to make music performances available during this crisis.

    The company assembled an outstanding team to create a safe performance space, adhering to the strictest safety protocols to achieve a world-class digital capture. The participating artists quarantined and created a social pod, allowing them to safely interact during the process.

    All cast and crew underwent frequent COVID testing and temperature checks, wore PPE, and observed social distancing protocols. The filming space was cleaned/disinfected continually, and divided by clear plexiglass barriers, isolating musicians/conductors from singers. A dedicated COVID-19 safety officer remained on-site throughout the entire process, enabling the company to proceed with the creation of this extraordinary production.

    Sung in English, viewers are offered the option of Spanish or Vietnamese subtitles (in addition to English), welcoming two of San Jose’s largest communities to experience this local art.

    OSJ is a making a national name for itself as a company dedicated to producing accessible, affordable, world-class performance, for long-time opera lovers and newcomers alike. During this pandemic, the company has led the charge in creating and providing programming to enrich its audiences, keep its artists at work, and make the opera-going experience easily available to all.

    Three Decembers

    Available via streaming beginning December 3

    For more information or to purchase tickets, which also make an excellent gift for any family member or loved one who enjoys opera or musical theatre, visit OSJ online ( https://www.operasj.org/ ) or call 408-437-4450 (open Monday through Friday, 9 am–5 pm).

    Published on December 3, 2020