Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II may not have been the first to recognize that opera singers, themselves, would make excellent characters in an opera; but he is probably the best known to have actually followed through on the idea. Indeed, his results were double-barreled, so to speak, since they resulted in a competition that involved not only composers but also their nationalities. To add to the fun, Joseph arranged for the two resulting operas to be presented at opposite ends of the same room in his Schönbrunn Palace.
As might be guessed, the better known of those operas was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 486 one-act singspiel “Der Schauspieldirektor” (the impresario). Also as might be guessed, Mozart was competing against Antonio Salieri, who wrote the one-act “Prima la musica e poi le parole” (first the music and then the words). During the twentieth century Richard Strauss came up with his own take on turning opera singers into opera characters with his Opus 60 Ariadne auf Naxos. Later on in the century the idea departed from the opera house and migrated to the dramatic stage. This was when Ken Ludwig wrote Lend Me a Tenor, whose script orbits around an American production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello while showing at least a few signs of influence from Michael Frayn’s theater-about-theater play Noises Off. Most recently, in 2015, the Dallas Opera presented the premiere of Great Scott, an opera composed by Jake Heggie using a libretto by Terrence McNally that takes on the challenges of producing opera in the 21st century. A two-CD album based on recordings made during the Dallas performances will be released by Erato this coming Friday; and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com has set up a Web page for taking pre-orders.
There is no questioning that this is a fun opera. Listening to the recording, you know this as soon as you realize that Gioachino Rossini has been shamelessly appropriated in the overture. Those familiar with Strauss’ Opus 60 will probably find bits and pieces of it lurking in the score pages; and, if I had a keener ear (and the benefit of looking at the scores themselves), I would not be surprised to trip over both Mozart and Salieri. There is also a bit of Noises Off in the libretto, with a first act involving rehearsal, while the second act takes on performance. Nevertheless, McNally knew exactly how to make this a distinctively American opera that would be particularly suitable for Dallas audiences. It does not take long for the plot to form around the fact that the premiere of a new opera will be competing with the Super Bowl.
Nevertheless, while listening to this recording, my primary reaction was “I wish I had been there!” Since the booklet does not include McNally’s text, I quickly realized that any number of witty moments were probably flying by with only supertitles to sustain them. (I suppose one might say, smugly, “That is why this is opera and not musical comedy!”) Still, one can appreciate that the participating vocalists (including Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, Nathan Gunn, Ailyn Pérez, and Anthony Roth Costanza) had no end of fun bringing this work to the opera stage. Even when McNally resorts to a cheap shot to get a laugh from the audience (audible on this recording), one can still ride on the crest of the consistently high spirits of the music itself. Indeed, when one considers the intense seriousness of most of Heggie’s operatic output, Great Scott is enough to make one wish that he would try his hand at comedy more often.