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Joyce Castle (Madeline) [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]
12 Jul 2010

Three Decembers at Central City

CENTRAL CITY — The story is banal: a single mother, an aging actress, is alienated from her grown-up children.

Jake Heggie: Three Decembers

Madeline: Joyce Castle; Beatrice: Emily Pulley; Charlie: Keith Phares. Director: Ken Cazan. Conductor: John Baril. Central City Opera.

Above: Joyce Castle as Madeline

All photos by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera


It’s a dysfunctional family, and things are complicated further by the fact that son Charlie is gay — his partner is dying of AIDS — and daughter Bea — trapped in a bad marriage — has turned to drink. Nothing much new in that, is there?

But what makes Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers compelling is the depth that director Ken Cazan brings to it in the production that opened at the Central City Opera here on Saturday. Cazan makes Maddy, mother and actress, an Everywoman with two Everykids. We’ve all been there; we’ve all shared to some degree in the alienation and sorrow of these three characters and we’ve all lived the Little Lies that — with luck — add up to one Big Truth.

Cazan has gone for the subtext of the story and made this a poignant study in the drives that cause people to do the Wrong Thing and shun each other. Heggie wrote Decembers for his friend Frederica von Stade, and the staging that was new in Houston in 2008 has moved around the country with her as Maddy. Much — indeed, almost everything — is new here. The 12-member orchestra, on stage elsewhere, is now in the pit, and Joyce Castle plays Maddy. It’s not a question of who plays it better; it’s how different the two singers — mezzos looking back on long careers — are.

Von Stade is famous as cute and cuddly Cherubino and puppy-loveable Octavian, while Castle has made her mark as — to mention only a couple of her 146 roles — Strauss’ hard-as-nails Herodias and a gender-bent Orlovsky. Castle has an edge — a bite, a grit — that makes her Maddy powerful and brings depth to her suffering. She presses the audience to her own failed breast and involves them in the errors she has made. Her success is spectacular, and it adds dimensions to her kids.

Youthful baritone Keith Phares, who created the role in Houston, is a stellar Charlie, and as Bea CCO regular Emily Pulley makes no effort to hide the mess that her life is. Impressive here in such diverse roles as Elvira, Susannah and Vanessa, Pulley has never sung so beautifully as she does as Bea.

CCOThreeDecembersCharlieBea.gifKeith Phares as Charlie and Emily Pulley as Beatrice

Designer Cameron Anderson hit upon a great idea to underscore Cazan’s approach to Decembers, white windows — a total of 50 — descend upon the stage and then leave it vacant for the final scene, a memorial service for Maddy, that brings about reconciliation and redemption.

“The windows,” Cazan explains in a program note, “represent the endless potential for communication — for the speaking and heeding” foreign to these three people. Windows, of course, also close.

Call Decembers— if you will — a chamber or even “pocket” — opera, is has grown immensely through the CCO staging. Heggie’s voice remains his own — closer here perhaps to Broadway than the Met. That, however, is of little concern. It is music that speaks to the heart; it provokes feeling and demands emotional reaction. He is clearly American’s no. 1 opera composer. His Dead Man Walking has been staged around the world, and he celebrated a new triumph by turning Melville’s Moby Dick into grand opera in Dallas in April.

Three Decembers is a modern masterpiece, and it documents the unusually intense collaboration between Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer, his partner also in Moby Dick. It is a triumph for Central City, but — alas — one that leaves a big question open: where were the opera-goers Saturday who usually pack the house here on opening night? They were painfully absent, and this is disturbing.

Heggie is today a household word in the music world. He was in Denver to open the Ellie; he’s been at the Vail Valley Festival. The University of Colorado staged an awesome production of Dead Man Walking. Yet on Saturday people stayed away in droves. Does this mean that to stay in business Central City must stage endless Bohemes and Carmens? One refuses to accept the answer seemingly given that question here on Saturday.

Played without intermission, Decembers runs 95 minutes. John Baril conducted.

Three Decembers plays in repertory with Madama Butterfly and Orpheus in the Underworld at the Central City Opera through August 8. For tickets and information, call 303-292-6700 or visit

Wes Blomster

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