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'Great Scott,' An Opera About An Opera, Premieres In Dallas Friday

Karen Almond
Dallas Opera
In "Great Scott," an "opera within an opera," Joyce DiDonato plays a diva who finds an unknown opera then stars in it. The character Rosa Dolorosa sacrifices herself in hopes of saving Pompeii. The lost opera premieres on the same night as the Super Bowl

Can you imagine a big opera premiere opening on the same night as the Super Bowl? In the same city as one of the big game teams? That’s just one of the turns in the opera "Great Scott," which opens this Friday in Dallas.  

Some operas are bigger than life. Others are based on real life. This one blends both.

In a storied European opera house, the lead character Arden Scott finds the music for an old opera in the back of a drawer. She decides she wants to sing the part of Rosa Dolorosa, a bel canto role of fluid and challenging vocal lines. The work’s never been heard before.   

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the stars of "Great Scott." In effect she’s singing two roles: Arden Scott, and her character, Rosa Dolorosa.

"Rosa’s journey, in the opera, Rosa Dolorosa is ahh -- breathtaking!" DiDonato says. "She’s made to sacrifice herself to save the people of Pompeii. Arden Scott -- hers is quite personal; in some ways it feels autobiographical. She’s an American diva coming home, doesn’t quite fit there anymore. She’s not sure she’s made a difference.” 

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Librettist Terrence McNally, left, and composer Jake Heggie have teamed again for "Great Scott," an original story with world-class singers including Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade.

The old opera will have a premiere in the home city of one of the Super Bowl teams the same night. The twist allows composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally to mix contemporary and old-fashioned operatic styles. McNally, who first worked with Heggie on "Dead Man Walking," wrote the story.

What is opera meant to be?" McNally asks. "A repository for the works of the 19th century? Or does opera have a real role in our life as 21st century people? It argues that, too."

The blend of eras challenged Heggie. He’s best known here for Moby Dick. The opera premiered in Dallas five years ago.  He used McNally’s script to explore bel canto writing. Both men knew they wanted DiDdonato and the other key performers.   

“We both feel very strongly we have to know who we’re writing for and how we can imagine them presenting and performing it," Heggie said.

He's written for DiDonato before. As soon as she heard he and McNally wanted her, it was an easy 'yes.' She calls both geniuses.

“Jake said what do you want to do and we batted about titles, we batted about ideas, and I said Jake you know it doesn’t matter, can we please do a comedy?" DiDonato explains. "And a week later I called him back and I said, 'no no, no; I want an old-fashioned mad scene.' Well, leave it to Jake and Terrence. They found an original story that actually accomplishes both of those.”

Heggie’s happy Dallas invited him back to do this.

“It feels miraculous and a dream come true and a homecoming as well. And it’s … there’s no place like home,” Heggie says, smiling. 

It feels that way for McNally, too. The multiple Tony winner has influenced every opera Heggie’s written. But it’s a homecoming for McNallly not just because he’s working with Heggie again.

“I’ve always been an opera lover since the sixth grade. It began in Dallas, Texas," McNally says. "I went to Christ The King School for a few years. Our nun played opera records for us and I liked opera right away. So it all began here. So I’ve come home too.”

DiDonato’s home plays a role as well. On the same night she sings the Dallas premiere, there won’t be a Super Bowl, but her hometown Kansas City Royals will be play in the World Series.

She'll catch updates at intermission.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.