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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