Tony! Tony! Tony! | Performance | Weekly style
To portray the Broadway diva at the center of “Three Decembers”, Virginia Opera turned to the Great White Way itself – she cast Karen Ziemba, a Tony-winning actress who has starred in numerous Broadway shows.
A stage and screen veteran who has appeared on TV shows ‘Law and Order’, ‘The Good Wife’, ‘Elementary’ and ‘Madam Secretary’, Ziemba says ‘Three Decembers’ presents a new challenge . Although her grandmother was an opera singer, this will be the first opera in which Ziemba will appear.
“It’s not what I’m used to and I’m trying to tackle it,” says Ziemba, who won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in ” Contact”. “I’ve been singing all my life; it’s just a different form of singing.
In modern opera, Ziemba plays the role of Maddy, a famous Broadway actress in search of a Tony. Every December she writes a family letter detailing the events of herself, her son Charlie and her daughter Bea. In the letters and in her life, Maddy takes liberties with the truth, and Charlie and Bea must deal with the fallout. With scenes set in 1986, 2006 and 2016, the opera explores family dynamics, the AIDS crisis, lies and deception.
Based on a never-before-seen play by theater great Terrence McNally, “Three Decembers” is the work of Jake Heggie, a composer best known for his lyrical adaptations of “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick.” Virginia Opera Artistic Director Adam Turner calls “Three Decembers” one of the most produced contemporary operas of this century.
“It is certainly one of the most successful modern operas, and Jake Heggie is truly the American opera composer of our generation,” says Turner, who has worked with Heggie in the past. “His works have been seen all over the world, but certainly in America, for the past 20 years he has kind of defined the direction of American opera.”
Ziemba says she was drawn to opera because of her association with McNally.
“His stories are so honest and raw and realistic,” she says. “His writing is funny and yet it gets you in the gut, he can also be so devastating. There are all these many different levels of emotion that you go through as a character in his stories, and that’s true for “Three Decembers.”
Ziemba says she has sympathy for the self-centered character she portrays.
“She’s kind of trying to make amends with her grown children, and she’s doing her best, but she has a few stumbling blocks,” says Ziemba. “She can be very self-centered, like people who spend their lives in the performing arts have to because they have to be on top of their game all the time. To do this, you must be very insular and take care of yourself. What happens is that, unfortunately, it can affect your relationships.
Alongside Ziemba are soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Beatrice and baritone Efraín Solís as Charlie. López is well known to Virginia Opera audiences for her starring roles in “La Traviata” and “The Elixir of Love.” Solís has previously appeared in Virginia Opera’s “Il Postino (The Postman)” as Di Cosimo the Politician.
“What’s really special is that the three [singers] really bonded as people to create a sense of family on stage,” says director Lawrence Edelson, founder of American Lyric Theater and current artistic and general director of ALT and Opera Saratoga. “You really feel like it’s three people who are tied together.”
Turner points out that the score for “Three Decembers” is melodic and sometimes invokes musical theatre.
“Whenever you talk about modern opera and contemporary opera, people get scared,” he says. “They think, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be one of those atonal ‘boop-boop-boop’ songs,’ but it’s not that. It’s very accessible, tonal and relevant music.
Although most of us don’t have a Broadway diva for a mother, Edelson says the family relationships depicted on the show should be familiar to everyone.
“It’s all part of the human experience and the dynamic that we have with family,” he says. “It’s a story of showing up for life, and, to me, it’s a lot about the invisible threads that connect us, and how tight those threads can get over the years.”
Turner agrees that the show is about participating in life despite its complications and has heightened significance in light of the pandemic.
“There’s a line at the very end that the mother sings: ‘All in all, isn’t life just great. I’m so glad I showed up for this. You get to that line at the very end of the show and it’s so poignant,” Turner says. “What I want to tell the public, more than anything, is that we are all struggling, and I really thought COVID was over. If you just show up, just put yourself out there and show up, you might actually have a great time.
Virginia Opera’s “Three Decembers” plays February 11 and 13 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For more information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.