Part One: 1986
Scene 1: A Letter and a Phone Call
Siblings Charlie and Bea are on the phone to share their famous mother’s annual Christmas letter. They laugh about her theatrical writing style and muse on their strained relationship with her. Charlie is in San Francisco and Bea is in Hartford while Madeline (Maddy) is spending Christmas in the Caribbean. She describes a long-ago Christmas in San Francisco with their late father, before they were born. They hardly remember their dad as they were terribly young when he died.
Maddy gleefully announces that she will soon star in her first Broadway musical and concludes her letter by sending love to Bea’s family and to Charlie’s partner, Curt. However, his name is actually Burt, and he is very sick with AIDS. After five years with Burt, Charlie is deeply hurt that his mother still doesn’t know his name. This has been a constant battle for Charlie and his mother. Bea tells Charlie how she envies the love he and Burt share. Charlie convinces her to come to San Francisco to visit.
Scene 2: A Broadway Stage
Maddy sings Daybreak, the final number from her Broadway show.
Scene 3: Backstage
Beatrice joins Maddy in her dressing room after a hugely successful opening night performance. She expresses her concern for Charlie and Burt and accuses Maddy of continuing to be an absent, unsupportive parent. Maddy proclaims her deep love for them and explains that as a single mother, she had to work and miss much of their childhood. She describes the terrible, sudden car accident that caused their father’s death, but Bea notices that a detail of the story is a little different this time. When she asks Maddy about it, Maddy leaves the room.
Scene 4: The Golden Gate Bridge
Bea and Charlie are walking on the Golden Gate Bridge. They imagine their parents as young actors with their lives, dreams and careers ahead of them. Charlie tells Bea that Burt is not doing well and may be dying. Together, they think back on their childhood, what they actually remember about the father they never really knew, and what they’ve invented over the years.
Part Two: 1996
Scene 1: Charlie’s Apartment
Charlie sits alone in his apartment, surrounded by numerous shipping boxes, all packed and sealed. He reads through his journal and talks to Burt, who died seven weeks ago at Christmas time. He remembers how his mother finally came to visit right before Burt’s death. She touched his hand and sang the lullaby that Charlie’s father used to sing to him. As Charlie remembers, Maddy sings the lullaby.
During the song, Bea and Maddy have a quick phone call in which Maddy tells her she’s been nominated for a Tony Award. The plan is for all three of them to be together again for the big night. They finish the lullaby as a trio.
Scene 2: Maddy’s Apartment
Bea is alone in her mother’s apartment. Maddy had promised to be there to help her pick out something special to wear to the Tonys, but she never showed up. Bea stands in front of a mirror, drinks wine, and tries on her mother’s clothes as she sings of how deeply she misses her father. Her deep sense of worthlessness isn’t helped by her mother’s absence or her husband Syd’s infidelities. Charlie rushes in and notices how upset she is. He cheers her up with a story about their mother and a rousing number inspired by her passion for shoes.
Madeline enters and tells Charlie that if she wins the Tony, she will speak of how moved and inspired she was by Burt’s struggle, and that by working together, we will defeat AIDS. Bea and Charlie are mortified that their mother now wishes to capitalize on Charlie’s relationship with Burt: a relationship she had disdained and discarded for so many years.
With emotions and tension running high, Maddy accuses Bea of being a “sad, sorry, drunken mess” just like her father. Unable to mislead her children any more, Maddy reveals the grim truth about their father and the dark secret she’d been keeping: he suffered from depression, drank heavily, couldn’t get work and wasn’t able to help support or raise his young family. One night, without warning, he got up, walked to a subway station and stepped in front of a train. Maddy made up a story about a car accident to protect her small children from the truth: their father had committed suicide.
Bea and Charlie are devastated by the sudden knowledge that they have built their identities and lives on a lie. Is this something one can forgive? They leave their mother alone in her apartment. Maddy slowly pulls herself together and goes to the Tonys.
Part Three: 2006
On an empty Broadway stage, Charlie and Bea speak at a memorial service for their mother. Maddy died suddenly and quietly in her sleep after writing her annual Christmas letter. Bea and Charlie acknowledge that they still struggle to understand their mother and reconcile the lie she told about their father. But Bea says, thanks to her own children, she now understands what the theater meant to Maddy: it was her religion, it was her way of forgetting and of feeling deeply. Maddy’s ghost joins in, asking their forgiveness and explaining that she found on the stage what every person desires: not escape, but connection. Bea and Charlie offer a loving tribute to their parents’ souls. Maddy gratefully accepts. The service concludes with the final line from Maddy’s Christmas letter: “All in all isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.”
“All in all, isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.” (Madeline Mitchell in Three Decembers)
Shortly after the premiere of Dead Man Walking in 2000, the opera’s librettist, the great American playwright Terrence McNally, mentioned a short script he’d written for an AIDS benefit in 1999. He gave me a copy of Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls) and from the first words, the story sang to me. It felt true, honest, emotionally big, and exactly what I was looking for as a chamber opera. I started sketching musical ideas in the margins and knew I wanted to compose it for the great, inspiring American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. She and I have a rich history of collaborating, and by then I’d already written many songs for her as well as a major role in Dead Man Walking. She was on board right away.
A brief but powerful fourteen pages long, the script is about the stormy, emotional lives of a famous stage actress named Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Bea and Charlie. The script was created for an AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York and was performed one time only by the astonishing cast of Julie Harris (Madeline), Cherry Jones (Bea) and Victor Garber (Charlie). Told through letters and phone calls, the story follows these characters through three decades of their lives.
It is a play about identity and family, discovering the truth of who we are and who our parents are. Hovering over it all is the difficult, tense history of the AIDS crisis in America. Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera co-commissioned the piece as a chamber opera that could be done in different size venues with three singers and 11 instrumentalists all onstage together.
I first read the script in 2001, but due to several detours, it wasn’t until 2007 that librettist Gene Scheer and I were finally able to get going. It was our first opera collaboration. Taking this 14-page script and turning it into a viable opera was a big leap requiring imagination, invention, and vision, all of which Gene has in spades. He enlarged the story and gave it dramatic conflicts and actions not found in the original script; he also invented the big family secret at its core. After considering several titles for the opera, we settled on Three Decembers.
With Gene’s clear libretto, I was able to compose the opera in about six months. The flavor of musical theater heard throughout is due to the dominance of Madeline Mitchell, the famous Broadway star who is also the matriarch of this family. Though Bea and Charlie each have their own musical personalities, Madeline’s influence and gravitational pull are inevitable.
The premiere of Three Decembers took place at Houston Grand Opera’s Cullen Theater on Feb. 29, 2008 with Frederica von Stade (Madeline), soprano Kristin Clayton (Bea) and baritone Keith Phares (Charlie). The cast reunited later that year for a production by San Francisco Opera at UC Berkeley. Following that production, we made a few essential rewrites and, more than ten years later, Three Decembers has received more than two dozen international productions with several more on the horizon.
– Jake Heggie, Composer