“Three Decembers” a Welcome Spring Serenade

Theater fans will love the opera “Three Decembers” with Jake Hegge’s beautiful music, its straightforward story, and a strong, touching performance by American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.

This intimate, three-person opera is the story of a self-centered theater star and her two needy children in a drama that unfolds with charm, conviction and humor, without masking the inevitable sadness that life dishes out to everyone.

The libretto by Gene Scheer is based on a short play “Some Christmas Letters” by Terrance McNally, and the plot is a straightforward family drama. The mother, Maddy, is played by von Stade, her son Charlie by American baritone Matthew Worth (both pictured) and soprano Sara Jakubiak sings the part of her daughter Bea.

An 11-piece orchestra is on the stage with the composer himself playing one of the pianos. The opera is sung in English with English super-titles. Hegge’s lovely music frequently unfolds into full-fledged arias and at other times it is as fierce as if written by Verdi.

Von Stade is a wonder, capping off a 40-year career — she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970 — with a wonderful performance, fresh, lovely and perfectly suited to her glowing mezzo voice. She is among the first group of native-born American opera stars trained as actors as well as singers, so her performance is authentic and full of truth.

As the children, Worth and Jakubiak strongly convey the pain of being raised by a woman more interested in the stage than in them. Their voices blend beautifully.

The ending is a tearjerker. “All in all, isn’t life simply grand,” says Maddy, “I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.” To which her children reply, “So are we, Mom. So are we.”

You’ll be glad too, if you take the time to see this simple opera, full of well-crafted music and a touching story. This is von Stade’s Chicago Opera Theater debut and her final performance in the city of Chicago before retirement, though she will sing the role of Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the Ravinia Festival Aug. 5.

Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera jointly commissioned “Three Decembers”. COT’s production runs at 7:30 p.m. May 12 and 14, and at 3 p.m. May 16. Tickets range from $120 to $40. Visit ChicagoOperaTheater.org or call (312) 704-8414 or visit HarrisTheaterChicago.org or call (312) 334-7777.

Photo by Liz Lauren