Three Decembers At The Jungle In May

Photos courtesy of Gary Briggle
Photos courtesy of Gary Briggle

Three Decembers, opening May 12 at the Jungle Theatre, will be Skylark’s 75th production. Seeking to make opera more accessible to wider audiences, they’ve adapted and abridged some of the more formidable elements of grand opera, creating an intimate scale more welcoming to the first time opera-goer, while retaining the high musical and technical quality expected by the seasoned opera aficionado: the Chamber Opera.

A further aid to accessibility is the Skylark for Seniors program, that brings performances out to senior-living communities for those unable to access a theater, and performing the programs as as concerts rather than operas.

Skylark gives voice to people and problems not usually found as standard grand opera themes. In addition to the Mitchell’s family turmoil in Three Decembers, past productions have included As One’s transgender protagonist, and Treemonisha’s examination of Black lives in the early 20th century.

Three Decembers Director, Gary Briggle, talked recently with Lavender about the show and shared his history in the chamber opera field reaching back to 1975. After earning degrees in Bachelor of Music and Speech/Theatre degrees from St. Olaf College, he was “incredibly fortunate” to be selected for the Minnesota Opera Company’s resident ensemble, under the visionary guidance of H. Wesley Balk.

Where did you go next?
In 1982, I began the peripatetic life of the freelance artist, working with regional theaters and opera companies from Florida to Alaska. I established long-term artistic associations here in the Twin Cities, in Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach, Cleveland, Sacramento, Tucson/Phoenix and Milwaukee over the years. My professional directing career began in 1979, and I’ve juggled singing, acting, directing and teaching for the past 48 years!

What exactly is a “Chamber Opera”?
A chamber opera is defined by its proportions: relatively small casts, often ten or fewer, no chorus, a similarly reduced instrumental accompaniment, and designed to be performed in smaller theaters, typically for audiences of less than 300.

What particularly drew you to Three Decembers?
Three Decembers was on my radar because I’d directed [composer] Jake Heggie’s masterpiece, Dead Man Walking. His musical language speaks to me deeply.

Colleagues who’d performed Three Decembers recommended it to me, as interim artistic director of Skylark, knowing of my avid interest in new American operas and my search for entertaining, engaging chamber operas in English. As I studied the moving, accessible score, I felt it was perfect for Skylark, with a cast of three singers, the composer’s reduced orchestration for two pianos, and a funny, truly touching libretto by Gene Scheer.

I’ve seen Maddy described variously as “fading” or “twilight”– but all performers age, and Maddy must be doing something right to be nominated for a Tony. How do you see her, direct her?
Madeline Mitchell is certainly a fascinating, complex character, charismatic, sympathetic and infuriating–in other words, fully human. The role was originally written for the world- renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who premiered the opera [in 2008] when she was 63.

The dramatic demands of the role are extensive, the vocal requirements only slightly less so, since the composer is writing here in a more musical-theater style. So, Maddy may be thought of as in her “twilight years” according to the age-ism against women so prevalent in the acting profession, but she’s an undeniable artistic “force to be reckoned with,” willing to tackle her first starring role in a Broadway musical late in her career, as, for example, did Hepburn, Bacall, Davis, and several of the original stars of Sondheim’s Follies.

Since the opera spans two decades, from 1986 until her unexpected passing in 2006, Maddy seems always to blaze with life, but is perhaps like the proverbial candle that “burns most brightly just before it goes out.” She gets the Tony nomination in 1996 when she’s in her prime, still highly active and ambitious,showing no signs of slowing down.

It’s true that she burst onto the Broadway scene as an ingenue in Katherine Cornell’s company, quickly became an acclaimed leading lady, and has occasional longings for those halcyon days, but one of hermost admirable traits is living life with gratitude and without regrets–for better or worse.

Norah Long will brilliantly capture that dazzling “star quality”, which makes Maddy seem ageless, despite her uphill struggles. And Norah will expertly find the empathetic qualities in Maddy’s personality and behavior. As a director, I’ll be there to help her, and her two equally remarkable young colleagues, Tony Potts [son Charlie] and Siena Forest [daughter], find the most effective and meaningful choices.

Gary Briggle

How is Three Decembers relevant to today’s audiences?
I think that what makes Three Decembers relevant are the recognizable personalities and situations in the story. This piece is about a dysfunctional family of damaged people trying to heal and love one another in positive ways. The themes of unresolved grief, challenges of being a single, working mother, the causes and effects of addictive behavior, and the absolute necessity for mutual respect, honesty and trust, are universal, and are dealt with in highly empathetic ways, humorously and dramatically. Love is only part of the resolution for this family–but it’s the most significant part.

Skylark has metamorphosed since its founding in 1980; how do you look to the future?
Skylark Opera Theatre continues to evolve in wonderful ways. I first performed with the company in 1997, when it was Northstar Opera, (founded in 1980 as Opera in St. Paul), producing operettas, traditional opera and rarely performed works. I directed Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (1998), Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (2006), Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill and Offenbach’s La Belle Helene (both in 2003), whichdemonstrate the spectrum of the company’s work. In 2016, it was rebranded as Skylark Opera Theatre, and continues to expand its mission and repertoire to include musicals, music-theater, classic and contemporary opera, sung in English and innovatively staged.

And audience response?
I’m pleased to report that audiences have shown great support for the smaller works in intimate spaces.My adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, performed in the main gallery at TMORA, was a sold-out success.

Jungle Theatre should be an especially good fit for this opera.
The Jungle will be an appropriately “theatrical” venue for this opera about a Broadway star and her adult children. The acoustics are ideal, since the singers don’t use mics, and audiences will be able toappreciate the subtleties of their acting without the need for or distraction of supertitles.

Was the original opera commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera from a play or a story by Terrance McNally?
The opera was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera in 2008, and when Jake Heggie asked his friend and collaborator Terrence McNally for some ideas about a story, the esteemed playwright immediately suggested his one-act play, Some Christmas Letters, written for an AIDS benefit and performed with Julie Harris as Maddy.

Gene Scheer masterfully turned that script into the libretto, keeping the humor and sensitivity of the originalwhile increasing the dramatic tensions and emotional impact. Heggie’s eloquent musical language lifts the text into operatic territory, although he’s called the piece his “musical,” due to its melodic accessibility.

Any other aspects of Three Decembers you’d like to share with Lavender readers?
Since Madeline Mitchell’s son, Charlie, is gay and tragically loses his beloved partner to AIDS, I am immensely grateful to Dylan Boyer at the Aliveness Project for collaborating with us during the run of the show, to provide educational information about AIDS, HIV testing, and supportive resources available in our community. We look forward to a panel discussion with Aliveness staff and members of our cast, after a Sunday matinee, to increase awareness and understanding.

Three Decembers will play at the Jungle Theatre May 12-14 and 19-21, 2023. For further information, see

Lavender Magazine Logo White

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436
©2024 Lavender Media, Inc.

Accessibility & Website Disclaimer