Composer’s Notes – Three Decembers by Jake Heggie

“All in all, isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.” (Madeline Mitchell in Three Decembers)  

Shortly after the premiere of my first opera Dead Man Walking in 2000, the librettist – the great American playwright Terrence McNally – mentioned a short script he’d written for an AIDS benefit in 1999. He gave me a copy of Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls) and from the first words, the story sang to me. It felt true, honest, emotionally big, and exactly what I was looking for as a chamber opera. I started sketching musical ideas in the margins and knew I wanted to compose it for the great, inspiring American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. She and I have a rich history of collaborating, and by then I’d already written many songs for her as well as a major role in Dead Man Walking. She was on board right away.   

A brief but powerful fourteen pages long, the script is about the stormy, emotional lives of a famous stage actress named Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Bea and Charlie. The script was created for an AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York and was performed one time only by the astonishing cast of Julie Harris (Madeline), Cherry Jones (Bea) and Victor Garber (Charlie). Told through letters and phone calls, the story follows these characters through three decades of their lives.  

It is a play about identity and family, discovering the truth of who we are and who our parents are. Hovering over it all is the difficult, tense history of the AIDS crisis in America. Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera co-commissioned the piece as a chamber opera that could be done in different sized venues with three singers and 11 instrumentalists all onstage together.  

I first read the script in 2001, but due to several detours it wasn’t until 2007 that librettist Gene Scheer and I were finally able to get going. It was our first opera collaboration. Taking this 14-page script and turning it into a viable opera was a big leap requiring imagination, invention and vision, all of which Gene has in spades. He enlarged the story and gave it dramatic conflicts and actions not found in the original script; he also invented the big family secret at its core. After considering several titles for the opera, we settled on Three Decembers.  

With Gene’s clear libretto, I was able to compose the opera in about six months. The flavor of musical theater heard throughout is due to the dominance of Madeline Mitchell, the famous Broadway star who is also the matriarch of this family. Though Bea and Charlie each have their own musical personalities, Madeline’s influence and gravitational pull is inevitable.  

The premiere of Three Decembers took place at Houston Grand Opera’s Cullen Theater on Feb. 29, 2008 with Frederica von Stade (Madeline), soprano Kristin Clayton (Bea) and baritone Keith Phares (Charlie). The cast reunited later that year for a production by San Francisco Opera at UC Berkeley. Though Three Decembers has now received some 20 international productions, the production here in Hawaii is the first to reunite that spectacular, indelible, dazzling original cast.  

 Jake Heggie for Hawaii Opera Theatre