To portray the Broadway diva at the center of “Three Decembers,” Virginia Opera turned to the Great White Way itself—it cast Karen Ziemba, a Tony-winning actress who’s starred in numerous Broadway shows.
A veteran of stage and screen who’s appeared in TV shows “Law and Order,” “The Good Wife,” “Elementary” and “Madam Secretary,” Ziemba says “Three Decembers” presents a new challenge. Though her grandmother was an opera singer, this will be the first opera in which Ziemba has appeared.
“It’s not what I’m used to, and something I’m trying to tackle,” says Ziemba who won the Tony Award in 2000 for Best Featured 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 the modern opera, Ziemba stars as Maddy, a famous Broadway actress on a quest for a Tony. Every December, she writes a family letter detailing the happenings of herself, her son Charlie and her daughter Bea. In both the letters and 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 deceit.
Based on an unpublished play by theater great Terrence McNally, “Three Decembers” is the work of Jake Heggie, a composer best known for his operatic adaptations of “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick.” Virginia Opera’s artistic director Adam Turner says “Three Decembers” is one of the most produced contemporary operas of this century.
“It’s certainly one of the most successfully modern operas, and Jake Heggie is truly the American opera composer of our generation,” says Turner, who’s worked with Heggie in the past. “His works have been seen all over the world, but certainly in America, the last 20 years, he’s kind of defined the direction of American opera.”
Ziemba says she was drawn to the opera because of its association with McNally.
“His stories are so honest and raw and realistic,” she says. “His writing is funny and yet he gets you in the gut, just can be so devastating too. There’s all these many different levels of emotion that you go through as a character in his stories, and that is true about ‘Three Decembers.’”
Ziemba says she has sympathy for the self-centered character she portrays.
“She’s trying to sort of make amends with her adult children, and she’s doing the best she can, but she has some stumbling blocks,” Ziemba explains. “She can be very egocentric, as people who spend their life in the performing arts do have to do because they have to be at the top of their game all the time. To do that, you have to be very insular and care about yourself. What happens is, unfortunately, that can trickle over into your relationships.”
Playing opposite Ziemba is soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Beatrice and baritone Efraín Solís as Charlie. López is familiar to Virginia Opera audiences for her starring roles in “La Traviata” and “The Elixir of Love.” Solís previously appeared in Virginia Opera’s “Il Postino (The Postman)” as Di Cosimo the politician.
“What’s been really special is that the three [singers] really bonded as people to create a sense of family onstage,” says director Lawrence Edelson, the founder of American Lyric Theatre and current artistic and general director of both ALT and Opera Saratoga. “You really get a sense that these are three people that are tied together.”
Turner stresses that “Three Decembers’” score is melodic invokes musical theater at times.
“Whenever you talk about modern opera and contemporary opera, people get scared,” he says. “They think, ‘Oh god, it’s going to be one of those atonal ‘boop-boop-boop’ pieces,’ but this is not that. This is very accessible, tonal, relevant music.”
Though most of us don’t have a Broadway diva for a mother, Edelson says the family relations portrayed in the show should be familiar to everyone.
“That’s all part of the human experience and the dynamics we have with family,” he says. “It’s a story about showing up for life, and, for me, it’s a lot about the invisible threads that connect us together, and how strained those threads can become over the years.”
Turner agrees that the show is about participating in life despite its complications, and has a reenforced meaning in light of the pandemic.
“There’s a line at the very end that the mother sings: ‘All in all, isn’t life simply grand. I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.’ You get to that line at the very end of the show and it just is so poignant,” Turner says. “What I want to relate to audiences, more than anything, is we’re all struggling, and I really thought COVID was over. If you just show up, if you just put yourself out there and show up, you might actually have a grand time.”
Virginia Opera’s “Three Decembers” plays Feb. 11 and 13 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For more information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.