Great Scott! Comedy, drama to join forces in new opera

The trio behind the opera — director Jack O’Brien, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally.
(Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)

How many operas can you think of that have been called “hilarious, endearing, sophisticated and profound”? Starting May 7, San Diego Opera, in partnership with the Dallas Opera, will present the West Coast premiere of one of those happy few — “Great Scott,” a thoroughly modern opera about a diva, a faltering small-town opera company and football.

The prolific composer, Jake Heggie, lists eight pages of operas, song cycles, chamber and orchestral works on his website, including the whale-scale opera “Moby Dick,” which had its West Coast premiere here in 2012.

And “Great Scott” has a libretto by acclaimed writer Terrence McNally, who was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame 20 years ago for his contributions to the Broadway stage. Besides a Tony Award for “Master Class,” his play about the ultimate opera diva, Maria Callas, he also won “Best Book for a Musical,” Tonys for “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and did the libretto for Heggie’s first opera, “Dead Man Walking.”

The third man behind “Great Scott” is director Jack O’Brien, well-known in these parts as Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre from 1981 to 2007, and a three-time Tony-winner himself. Together, this trio has crafted a production well worth seeing and hearing, with more comic lines than most librettos could ever imagine.

How did Great Scott come into being?

“After Moby Dick, Dallas asked me to do another opera for them,” Heggie said in a recent interview. “I wanted to write something for the great mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, and I wanted to work with Terrence McNally again, so I said yes, and Terrence said, ‘Let’s be really bold. Let’s do something with comedy and drama.’ Usually it’s one or the other, but he came up with the story and right from the start, I was swept in.

“It’s very contemporary, bringing up the questions we ask ourselves about the sacrifices we make for our careers: Was it worth it? Does my contribution matter? Does my presence make a difference in the world?”

The San Diego production includes four cast members from last year’s world premiere in Dallas, plus four additions. “So it’s 50 percent the people we wrote it for and 50 percent new people, which is very exciting,” Heggie said. “In opera, we don’t get to do previews; it’s just shot out of a cannon opening night. Now we’ll get a chance to hear it with new voices, and fresh ears. I haven’t worked with Kate Aldrich before, but she’s a real star, and it will be a completely different interpretation.”

Fifteen minutes have already been cut from the Dallas version, and more changes may be made during rehearsals, which began April 18. “We get a two and a half week rehearsal period for a very big show — that’s our world,” Heggie said. “So it’s not easy to make changes. But that’s why you work with the best people around.”

“Great Scott” asks the question: does opera matter? And both Dallas and San Diego know something about struggling opera companies, and caring enough to step up and fight for their continued existence.

“Opera does matter,” said Heggie. “People are glued to their flat screens; they need to go out and experience something alive. And opera only exists when it’s being performed; the final character is the audience. I can’t wait to see what happens in San Diego!”

Next up for Heggie: An opera-based on the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” opening in Houston in December. Right now, it’s Scott-time in San Diego, and you can be the final character in the West Coast premiere.

IF YOU GO: “Great Scott” takes the stage 7 p.m. May 7, 10 and 13, and 2 p.m. May 15 at San Diego Opera, Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave. Tickets: (619) 533-7000.