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'Great Scott,' an opera about opera, shows what makes Jake Heggie so popular

'Great Scott,' an opera about opera, shows what makes Jake Heggie so popular
Soprano Joyce El-Khoury is Tatyana Bakst in San Diego Opera's "Great Scott." (Karen Almond)

Jake Heggie's latest opera, "Great Scott," given its West Coast premiere by San Diego Opera on Saturday night, is a farce about the opera world. A financially struggling Texas company, American Opera, underwritten by an opera-loving wife's football team owner husband, needs a sensation to survive. It pins its hopes on a world premiere of a long-lost bel canto opera by one Vittorio Bazzetti.

The amusing backstage banter, which takes up much of the opera, is easily believable, but the premise is pure fancy. Opera in America these days is much more about the new, like that of Heggie, than digging up moldy antiques. This past weekend proved a perfect example of how it has become impossible to even keep up.

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On our side of the Mississippi alone, Minnesota Opera gave the premiere of Paul Moravec's "The Shining," based on the Stephen King novel, on Saturday, the same night as Colorado Opera unveiled Lori Laitman's "The Scarlet Letter." These come on the heels, over the last two weeks, of David T. Little's "JFK" in Fort Worth and Henry Mollicone's "Lady Bird" at Texas State University.

Nor is it just about the American opera. Friday and Sunday the Los Angeles Philharmonic staged the first performances of leading Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's fifth opera, "Theatre of the World" (which will be reviewed Monday).

But no one right now is more attractive to American opera goers or opera stars than Heggie. The composer needed to choose where to show up Saturday. He was in San Diego with his librettist Terrence McNally for "Great Scott," but that meant passing up a new production of their first opera, "Dead Man Walking," the same night in Fresno.

"Great Scott" makes no pretension of greatness, but it serves as a great example of what it is that makes Heggie popular. He writes opera as entertainment. He moves easily from dark to light — he has coming up this month a Holocaust opera in Seattle and at the end of the year his version for the lyric stage of the classic feel-good film, "It's a Wonderful Life," for Houston Grand Opera. Relying on comfortable sentiments, he moves painlessly from fluff to the grandeur of something like "Moby Dick," which Los Angeles Opera presented earlier this season. So even with subject matter as dark as capital punishment, one can come away from "Dead Man Walking" oddly soothed. You always know exactly what is going on and how you are supposed to feel.

"Great Scott" goes nowhere opera has not gone before, and that seems the point. The score has swathes of pleasantly uninteresting pastiche, neither fresh nor especially clever. Heggie's version of 19th century bel canto style is a sort of dead opera walking.

McNally's cookie-cutter characters include a glamorous opera star who passed up love for a career now wondering what it all means in middle age and the ruthlessly ambitious young Eastern European soprano stealing the limelight. There is the perky stage manager and the old conductor who makes a pass at him.

But who doesn't like cookies? I arrived in San Diego in a bad mood, after having been stuck in freeway traffic longer even than this overlong three-hour opera, and I left in a good mood.

Heggie's secret is his likability, which powers every aspect of "Great Scott." He writes for the pleasure of his singers and for the pleasure of his audience. There isn't a note that doesn't seem to fit voices with ease. You can find your seat in San Diego Civic Theatre at the last minute, with no time to read a word of the synopsis, and you will have no trouble following anything.

In fact, this is a rare opera in which you shouldn't know the plot beforehand. Jack O'Brien's production is nearly pitch perfect, much of the humor is thanks to his clean and direct staging. Bob Crowley's understated sets move from backstage setting to front with elegant ease.

Heggie has long cultivated top singers, particularly mezzo-sopranos. Frederica von Stade was the first star to have promoted the composer, and she appears here as Winnie, a onetime singer who now runs the company. That her husband's Grizzlies happen to be playing in the Super Bowl across town the same night that American Opera is premiering Bazzetti's "Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei" gives Heggie opportunity to infuse a few football chants into his mix of pseudo Rossini, Bellini and Richard Strauss.

The plot revolves around a hometown singer made good. Full of insecurities about her career and life, Arden Scott stars in Bazzetti's silly lost "masterpiece" about a slave girl who saves Pompeii. Heggie patterned the role to fit one of America's favorite mezzos, Joyce DiDonato, who was said to have been terrific in Dallas.

Kate Aldrich, an American mezzo who should be better known, had the potentially thankless task of having to fill DiDonato's shoes in San Diego. But her winning Arden is more finely characterized than Heggie's score or McNally's libretto hint at. The swatches of fake bel canto in the scenes from "Rosa" might have seemed musically interminable were it not for the fact that a listener could simply bask in Aldrich's sensually rich mezzo.

Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury as the upstart Tatyana was funny and spectacular hamming up "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl. Nathan Gunn, as Arden's architect former boyfriend, is luxury casting. A tear and a smile for countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who makes everything work for American Opera but who is one of the invisible workers in opera, just waiting for someone to notice his blue eyes. Character parts — Garrett Sorenson as a flashy tenor, Michael Mayes as a buff baritone, Philip Skinner as a conductor and also the Ghost of Bazzetti — were exactly as they should be. Conductor Joseph Mechavich supplied essential musical personality.

A company that almost went belly up two years ago, San Diego has now passed through an era of chicanery and is gradually finding new footing. Although the company co-commissioned "Great Scott," it had pondered paying off the composer and librettist without performing the work. But just as "Rosa" saves American Opera, "Great Scott" is ephemeral opera that signifies a potentially solid future for San Diego Opera.

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"Great Scott"

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tues. and Fri.; 2 p.m. Sun.

Cost: $45 - $235

Info: (619) 232-7636 or www.sdopera.org

Running Time: 3 hours

Broadcast:  8 p.m. Sat., www.kpbs.org

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