Last Acts for Frederica von Stade 

Famed mezzo-soprano plays the cruel showbiz mom in Jake Heggie's new opera.

In the early '90s Frederica von Stade starred in San Francisco Opera's sumptuous production of Barber of Seville. In that performance she played Rosina, a young Spanish minx who hooks up with the illustrious Count Almaviva at the grand dénouement of a long comedy of errors. This year von Stade has inhabited a decidedly different character — a narcissistic showbiz mom who lives in a prison of denial. The character, named Madeline Mitchell, is the fulcrum of Jake Heggie's new opera, Three Decembers: Last Acts. At first glance, Mitchell seems like a contemporary Joan Crawford: cruel, pampered, and more interested in buying Manolo Blahnik shoes than in catering to her own children. But von Stade finds her infinitely more complex. "I was a showbiz mom," she said from her home in Alameda. "... I know the guilt involved in making the wrong decisions for your children sometimes, and causing them pain, really."

Emotional heft and social relevance make Three Decembers a great ticket for young audiences, even people who wouldn't normally run to see an opera. It opens with a darkly sardonic scene in which Mitchell's children read a Christmas letter from their mother, postmarked from some tropical isle in the Caribbean. Mitchell's daughter, Bea, is mired in an unhappy marriage; her son, Charlie, is losing his partner to AIDS. Meanwhile, they're reading this letter that's oiled with platitudes: "'You know I miss you both so much, but pass me a drink.'"

Poetic justice reigns in the end, and Mitchell emerges as a contrite and sympathetic character — but the burden falls on von Stade to make it believable. This she accomplishes in what critics have called a bruising, emotionally forthright performance, which traces Mitchell's psychological trajectory and offers a glimpse into her interior world. Heggie, a former SF Opera publicist who drove von Stade to press engagements in the '90s, and later made her a star in his 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking, conceived the role of Mitchell especially for von Stade. In many ways, it seems apropos. Although the real-life von Stade is a good-humored altruist who volunteers at St. Martin De Porres Catholic School, and undersells herself as an opera singer (she's one of the greatest mezzo-soprano vocalists in the world, but claims to be "on the decline"), she empathizes with Mitchell's situation. "It really is an examination of the mother-child relationship with any working mom," von Stade said. She added: "I've been able to explore many relationships through Jake's music. Jake has an amazingly firm hand on the soul." Three Decembers plays Dec. 11 (7:30 p.m.), 12 (8 p.m.), and 14 (3 p.m.) at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. $48-$86. CalPerfs.berkeley.edu

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