By Patrick Summers
HGO Artistic and Music Director
I’m currently immersed in the opening repertoire of three opera companies. This is a joyous time of year for performing artists because seasons we have all been planning for years, down to every detail, are beginning. In the span of six weeks, I’m conducting three operas in three cities, two of which are by living composers.
Tosca opens the Houston Grand Opera season, and I never fail to be excited to conduct this work. I have so many indelible conducting memories of Tosca: from 1988 in China— the first production of the opera in Asia, sung in Mandarin— to Lisbon, Portugal, in the mid 1990s, with the glorious Anna Tomowa-Sintow, to Houston, when we premiered this new production five years ago with Patricia Racette—and many others in between! Tosca is so satisfying because Puccini’s music illuminates his characters from within. It is a great story, of course, bloody and violent, but it is the inner light that comes from the music that draws me back to it each time. I also love the confluence of politics and religion in Tosca.
In San Francisco I’ve just finished conducting Stephen Sondheim’s dazzling Sweeney Todd for the first time in my career. It hardly needs an advocate, as this 36-year-old operatic musical, or theatrical opera, obviously belongs in the company of the greatest works ever written for the stage. What shelf it gets filed on—“musical”or “opera”—is not terribly interesting. The work is monumentally challenging to conduct; one learns so much from doing it, and I am always attracted to pieces from which I can learn. Stephen is justifiably one of the most honored and documented musicians in history, and so much has been written about Sweeney Todd. It is a very dark tragi-comedy, yet it is ultimately incredibly moving. What is it? On one level it is simply a great horror story. What struck me deeply in working on it is that it might be an unconscious allegory on the whole of 1970s America.
Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, with an original libretto by Terence McNally, is an homage to singing, patronage, the theater, rivalry, aging, the lure and lore of the past, golden-age syndrome, the choices we make for a career, and that greatest of autumn American obsessions, football. This is an opera about why we perform, why we make art, and the incredible sense of community it creates. It’s a wonderful piece, and it is deeply fulfilling to be working with Jake (at The Dallas Opera) on what will be our fifth world premiere together. This month is, for me, “a tale of two divas:” Tosca and Arden Scott—two great singers —one tragic, one comic— who sacrifice everything for their careers. “It was the best of times; it was the best of times!”