The Dallas Opera: Great Scott

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Jack O’Brien


Patrick Summers


  • Arden Scott
    an opera superstar
    Joyce DiDonato
  • Tatyana Bakst
    her ambitious rival 
    Ailyn Pérez
  • Winnie Flato
    her former mentor and dear friend 
    Frederica von Stade
  • Sid Taylor
    her old flame 
    Nathan Gunn
  • Roane
    the enigmatic stage manager
    Anthony Roth Constanzo
  • Eric Gold
    the temperamental conductor
    Kevin Burdette
  • Anthony Candolino
    the consummate tenor
    Rodell Rosel
  • Wendell Swann
    the Herculean baritone
    Michael Mayes
  • Vittorio Bazzetti
    the ghost of a composer 
    Kevin Burdette


Great Scott is a sincere, vulnerable story about opera. The famous Arden Scott returns to her hometown and the company that started her career (the significantly-named American Opera, run by her old teacher Winnie Flato) to star in the premiere of a newly-discovered bel canto opera, Rosa Dolorosa: Figlia Di Pompei. The opening scene is an engaging introduction into the rehearsal room where Arden is late because of an interview on 60 Minutes, pushy new soprano Tatyana Bakst is trying to convince Winnie to let her sing Arden’s part, stage manager Roane is flitting around keeping things under control, and conductor Eric Gold is becoming increasingly exasperated with the singers.

Arden returns and the rehearsal picks up again. Everyone is nervous and finally a break is called, during which Arden tells the chorus the story of how she discovered the opera. (While it is absolutely necessary for the audience to hear this story, it’s very strange for it to be staged this way. The company is supposed to be in final rehearsals for this show – surely they would have heard all about its discovery before? This is one of several not-quite-perfect elements in the story, probably due to the opera being new and not quite as edited as it maybe ought to have been.)

While on break, Roane flirts with Eric and dares him to broaden his musical horizons, Tatyana snatches up the chance to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the two male stars of the show compete for Winnie’s attention, and the chorus sings into their cell phones about the show and their excitement (with ringtones cutely provided by the orchestra). Winnie is excited too, but also worried: her husband’s local football team, the Grizzlies, is slated to play in the Super Bowl on the night of the opera’s premiere – and in modern America, who is going to buy tickets to an old opera with no reputation instead of tickets to the Super Bowl? Arden commiserates, and they reminisce about their past together.

They are interrupted by the arrival of Sid Taylor, Arden’s former boyfriend – they split up for career reasons, and now his son has an important speaking role in the opera. What follows is a frankly boring scene of reminiscence and “rekindling”; while the scene with Winnie was sweet and developed both characters further, the scene with Sid merely serves to remind us that Arden is a Career Woman who had to choose between her dreams and a romance, and that as a Career Woman she now obviously must have romantic regrets… about the small-town architect and his motorcycle. Although there’s no fault in either Nathan Gunn’s singing or acting, this simply isn’t an interesting role. Sid is little more than a plot excuse in this scene, and even as the opera continues, he provides nothing but an audience-surrogate for explaining the opera world (and an excuse for Arden to deliver the admittedly funny line, “You’re a perfect trifecta in our business – handsome, smart, and straight. I’d better walk you out.”).

With Sid (and Arden) out of the way for now, Tatyana, Eric, Roane, Winnie and the two male stars return from break to pick up the show’s pace again with a delightful alphabet-game sextet about their busy lives, from “falsettoing Falstaff in Flagstaff” to “quickly quoting Quixote in Quebec” to “exhaling Xerxes in Xanadu”. (“That’s cheating,” objects Eric. “Jealous,” quips Roane.) The opera is rife with in-jokes and references like these – while my sister Lauren and I didn’t understand all of them, we got enough to get the humor. One reviewer denounced the in-jokes as lazy writing, designed to make the audience feel smug about belonging; although it might be my smugness speaking, I think the humor helped the audience connect with the characters and their world.

The first act closes with a predictably nerve-wracking dress rehearsal (complete with dropped lines, throwing blame, and Arden hallucinating the ghost of the composer), but it’s in the second act where the opera itself starts to lag. It starts off on a magnificently melodramatic note as Tatyana Bakst presents an operatic version of the national anthem with every ornamentation possible (leaving her backup quartet in the dust) to wild applause before racing across town to the premiere of the opera. The first act of Rosa Dolorosa goes well, despite the shaky rehearsals, and at intermission the company finds out that their team is winning the game so far.

Arden retires to her dressing room to change and prepare for the difficult upcoming mad scene, but Sid interrupts her (yet again) by not going to the Super Bowl and instead barging into her dressing room, casually using her bathroom, and asking her to give them a chance again as a couple. (“I wouldn’t mind traveling the world and spending your money as Mr. Arden Scott,” he jokes.) It’s hard to imagine a more brash, over-masculine intrusion on Arden’s work. Luckily, Roane stops by to check on her and is outraged, ordering Sid out.

Arden thanks Roane and tells him she loves him, and Roane laughs. “What color are my eyes?” he asked. “Next month Carmen will tell me she loves me; the month after that, Butterfly will tell me she loves me. And none of them will know the color of my eyes, my last name, where I live, anything about me that doesn’t have to do with them. Do I sound bitter? I’m not: I’m one of the invisible people who makes all this opera sh*t happen.” He glances back at Arden, a little contrite. “Sorry,” he adds. “It’s not sh*t.”

After his quiet paean to the unseen angels of opera, Roane calls places and leaves Arden to finish preparing for the second act. But she is interrupted by yet another man: this time, the ghost of the composer Bazetti. He acts as Sid’s foil, urging her to not only sacrifice her whole self to the role of Rosa Dolorosa but also to the new music of her time, to a new and brilliantly difficult opera called Medea Refracted that was created especially for her to sing. (Arden had hesitated, not because it was hard, but because the character of Medea horrified her. “A woman like that – she isn’t human!” she protests to Bazetti. “Make the audience see the humanity in her,” Bazetti rejoins – a glib response, but an actress has the right to refuse to play a character on moral grounds, and the pressure put on Arden to abandon her own ideas in order to serve the zeitgeist of music was uncomfortable at best.)

The ghost scene was brilliantly staged, with Bazetti wandering a foggy second-story construction above Arden’s well-lit modern dressing room and Arden mouthing his words as if he was speaking through her own body (literally controlling her voice, in an unsettlingly apt way), but it dragged. After a while, the novelty of the staging faded, the argument started to repeat itself, and I found myself wondering when the next scene was going to hurry up and happen.

The spell was broken by good old Roane, who had run backstage to make sure Arden was prepared for Rosa Dolorosa’s mad scene. He finds Arden still half in a trance, without her props, and very likely without any of the preparation she wanted to have for that scene. “Medea Refracted,” she mumbles. “I’ve got to play Medea.” “Yes, yes, but right now you’ve got to play Rosa,” Roane snaps at her, pushing her along.

When Arden finally appears on the American Opera stage as the prophetically-mad Rosa, we get to see more of the fantastic over-the-top-opera-style set designed for the show-within-a-show. The entire company is placed on and around a huge volcano, with fiery projections rippling in the back. Arden wanders the stage, spilling all the exposition of the finale in beautiful Italian lyrics, for a long time before her stunt double gracefully falls into the volcano as a sacrifice for Pompeii. Here, again, the writing was sloppy and the scene prolonged: the audience knows from rehearsal that Arden’s character is the daughter of Tatyana’s character, and that both the suitors of Tatyana’s character are in love with Arden’s, and that Arden’s character is in reality not a slave girl but the daughter of Zeus. The music was great, but we didn’t need all that information rehashed, and if Rosa Dolorosa was a real opera paced so that everything was info-dumped in the last scene of the last act, then it probably would actually end up in obscurity.

As Rosa Dolorosa comes to its triumphant finale, the supertitles announce that the Grizzlies have actually lost the Super Bowl. Arden brings Winnie onstage with her for curtain call, and Winnie delivers a grateful speech to the “supporters of American Opera” that surely had everyone in the house a bit teary. Winnie’s husband has promised his own continued support, despite his team’s loss, and Winnie announces that maybe American Opera will put on Figaro next season.

Backstage, Arden checks online to see if any reviews have come up for the show yet, and discovers instead that Medea Refracted has asked Tatyana Bakst to play Medea instead. Tatyana apologizes and says she meant to tell Arden in person, and offhandedly drops that she will play Arden’s title role in Rosa Dolorosa in Venice next season. Arden, while shell-shocked, graciously offers Tatyana some advice. (This is yet another place where reality was a bit fudged for the sake of drama: why would a role written specifically for a mezzo-soprano – a very specific mezzo-soprano, at that, and a character that’s a traditional mezzo-y “witch” role – be given to a high soprano like Tatyana? No matter how good Tatyana’s Super Bowl performance was, she is clearly and obviously a soprano, and if Arden had refused the role it would have made more sense for Medea Refracted to seek out another mezzo.)

As everyone leaves, Arden lingers onstage. She asks Roane if anyone’s waiting for her, besides the fans, and Sid enters with his son. He asks Arden for her answer, and she asks for a minute alone. Hot on Sid’s heels, Bazetti’s ghost enters and they exchange bows. Arden is left alone in the middle of her sacred space, lit by the ghostlight, until Sid’s son runs back onstage to get his skateboard and she follows him off.

While it’s a cute ending, Sid has a lot of work to do before he’s even a character, let alone a character worthy of Arden, and it would have been better staging-wise to leave Arden at center stage alone until the curtain fell – free and balanced on the tipping point, as yet un-possessed by either the former flame or the composer.

This was my first opera in English, as well as my first modern opera, and I was interested to see that there were supertitles even for English. It made sense as the music picked up speed, though – when sung like opera, even English is a little hard to understand at first. (Our vowels aren’t pure like Italian, which I think influences it.) As the show went on, though, our ears adjusted and it got easier to understand. My favorite piece was probably either the alphabet sextet, even though it was a pause in the plot, because of how fun it was to recognize the names and get a further glimpse into the lives of opera singers; or Winnie Flato’s aria thanking the audience for their love and support of American Opera and expressing how much opera matters, which was practically the thesis statement of the entire story. I’ve got to say that while I sort of disliked any time Sid was onstage, the ghost scene was actually worse: the lagging scene, the repetitive writing, and the fact that almost immediately after one man tried to make Arden’s choice for her another one showed up in her head and tried to make her choose the opposite.

The live performance aspect was wonderful (it was exciting to see the stage shift between onstage-and-backstage, putting the audience in front of it and then behind it to follow the actors), and my sister Lauren called it “phenomenal, [despite the] prolonged second act”, but I agree with many reviewers that Great Scott should have been simulcast to Klyde Warren Park instead of Tosca.

While Tosca was fabulous, there are plenty of good full-length Toscas available online or on DVD – but there has never been a recording of Great Scott before, and if this opera doesn’t join company repertoires it will eventually fade away and be gone forever. When making a case for the universality and value of opera, modern media consumption should be taken into account: opera tickets are expensive, and people can only fall in love with the stories they actually get the chance to hear. With its message of opera’s immortality, Great Scott would do well to immortalize itself in a recording before its time in the spotlight runs out.

November 7th, 2015