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BWW Interview: Efraín Solís of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Loves Performing Works That Reflect Who We Are Now

The charismatic baritone brings to life a character created by the late, great Terrance McNally

BWW Interview: Efraín Solís of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Loves Performing Works That Reflect Who We Are Now
Baritone Efraín Solís
(Photo by Valentina Sadiul)

While performing arts organizations around the world are dusting off existing productions of the usual chestnuts during the month of December, Opera San José is taking a more audacious approach with its holiday programming. They are presenting a new, fully-staged production of Jake Heggie's immensely moving chamber opera, Three Decembers, featuring world-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the central role, alongside celebrated Opera San José Resident Artists soprano Maya Kherani and baritone Efraín Solís.

Based on the unpublished play Some Christmas Letters by Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally, Three Decembers follows the story of a famous actress, Madeline Mitchell, and her two adult children, Beatrice and Charlie over three decades (1986, 1996, and 2006). With a witty and touching libretto by Gene Scheer and a soaring musical score by Jake Heggie, Three Decembers is a 90-minute fullhearted American opera about family - the ones we are born into and those we create. The world-class digital production is offered via on-demand streaming through December 31, 2020. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit operasj.org or call (408) 437-4450.

I caught up by phone with Efraín Solís, who plays son Charlie, shortly after the filming of the opera had been completed. Among other things, we chatted about Three Decembers, the need to make opera more inclusive, accessible and relevant, and the genius of Stephen Sondheim. A charismatic baritone whose career is very much on the rise, Solís has performed with top companies such as San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and New York City Opera. Unfortunately, his career momentum was somewhat interrupted this year as productions he was scheduled to sing leading roles in were cancelled due to Covid. That said, Solís is still quick to express gratitude for the opportunities he's been given and is a delight to talk to - open and humble, with a warm sense of humor. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I saw a beautiful production of Three Decembers with Frederica von Stade at Cal Performances back in 2008 so I'm familiar with the work, but many folks probably are not. Can you tell me what the piece is about?

Gosh, it's a hard show to kind of boil down, even though there are only three characters. It's in the height of the AIDS epidemic and [mother] Maddie is the diva in the family, both personally and career-wise. She has always been concerned about the image of her family, and the kids just want a normal life. They want love from a significant other, from their family, a support system. It all comes to a head when everything they thought they knew about their father turns out to have been a lie. The nice thing is at the end of it we see the family come to some form of forgiveness. They find a way to move on together, but not in a traditional kind of way.

How would you describe your character, Charlie?

I love Charlie. He reminded me in a lot of ways of how I was in my twenties. I moved to San Francisco at 21 to pursue my Master's, and then I did my fellowship there. I lived in San Francisco for about 5 years and I grew a lot in that time. I could connect to Charlie wanting to go somewhere where he could just be himself and really allow himself to come into his own. In the penultimate scene, the big trio, he's the one trying to diffuse the situation and understand both sides. I'm a Libra and in some ways I find myself in that situation, seeing both sides of the story. Charlie is a character that I think a lot of gay men can really connect to and understand, because we do have to at some point almost allow ourselves to be who we are. Sometimes it has nothing to do with society, it has everything to do with giving oneself permission to be your true self, which is something that happens for Charlie throughout this show. He really comes into his own, and I love him for it. I was very thankful to be able to do that onstage.

What was the filming process like? This is kind of brave new world for everybody these days.

It was tough. I have a lot of friends in the film industry in LA, cause I'm from Southern California, and I asked them for advice, like how do you handle being on set? And they would say the hardest thing is staying warm emotionally, staying in that place. Especially if we had to stop and leave the set so cameras could be adjusted or whatever. But I found thankfully that - I'll speak for myself, but I really found that the three of us, me, Maya and Susan - we were sitting in our dressing rooms just waiting to go on. It was like we were, you know, the horses in the stables waiting for someone to pull that lever and open the gates, and then we would get on and just do it. I think part of that was because obviously with the pandemic going on we don't get a lot of these performance opportunities, and it was months of wanting to emote and express just pent up and waiting to be let out. [laughs] So it was pretty exciting in that sense. The days were long, but I think that we were just mentally and emotionally so invested that we couldn't give anything but our best.

You were following some pretty strict Covid safety protocols. Were you living in quarantine during the filming?

Yes. Thankfully Opera San José has set up these pods where most of us live together in an apartment building. Susan Graham was put up in her own housing, but we basically all were just allowed to socialize with each other because we were only going to the grocery store and then coming home. Thankfully, in Santa Clara County testing is so important here and readily available. We were getting tested, sometimes twice, three times a week just to make sure because if one person was exposed, it's a domino effect. Everything would get shut down. Thankfully, everyone was on the same page.

BWW Interview: Efraín Solís of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Loves Performing Works That Reflect Who We Are Now
(L to R) Susan Graham as Maddie, Efraín Solís as Charlie and Maya Kherani as Beatrice
in Opera San José's production of Three Decembers
(Photo by David Allen)

The amazing Susan Graham played your mother, Maddie. What was it like to work with her?

She was a dream, she really was. I met Susan a couple of times when I was an Adler Fellow, but we didn't really get to know each other until this process. Susan is just such a pro. When she showed up, she was prepared, she had obviously made decisions, but also was open to ideas. Our first read-through was on Zoom and it was so funny because we wanted to all just hug each other because it was great how available she is. It really was a masterclass in diving into a character vocally and physically. I mean, an artist of that caliber and with that history on the world stage of opera, it was incredible. On top of that, the best part was she was just Susie, you know? She never acted like she was "Susan Graham." [laughs] It was a lot of "How do you feel about this?" Or "What are you thinking of in this moment?" and then she would take it and kind of digest it and we would rehearse it again. It was always growing, always evolving.

You're currently a Resident Artist with Opera San José. What does that entail?

Thankfully the opera here has this set up where they have singers be residents. With a traditional season, it would be doing a lot of leading roles here. I think that's how Miss Dalis [Opera San José founding director Irene Dalis] had envisioned the company, where it's kind of for singers that are out of young artists programs to build their repertoire the way a lot of singers go to Europe to do, and unfortunately we can't really do that right now. When the pandemic started, Khori [General Director Dastoor] approached me and said, "You were supposed to be here to open the season for The Marriage of Figaro. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, but we have this other opportunity. You could potentially just stay here and get a paycheck." [laughs]. Which everyone was very desperate for at the time. So it was kind of the perfect opportunity, also safety-wise, [because of] the way it would be done in pods. I remember talking to one of my housemates back at home, and he said to me, "We don't know how long this [Covid] is going to last. This sounds like the healthiest option, the safest option, and if opera's going to be evolving, why wouldn't you want to be on the forefront of how things are changing, with this Three Decembers project?" And he was right.

Deciding to pursue a career in opera is certainly not following the path of least resistance. Do you recall any specific moment growing up when you realized this could become a reality for you?

Yeah. When I was in high school, I was already a teller at Washington Mutual. I was on a fast track to banking. [laughs] My parents were happy, they thought "Great, he's going to be in banking!" But my music teacher really encouraged me in high school, and senior year it was either between being the lead in the musical or working at the bank. I remember that year it was really funny because I won, I think, the Opera Pacific Mid-High School Competition, and I won like $5,000 or something, which was a big deal. I won a couple of competitions that year and I bought my own car. It was used, but I remember telling my parents, "If there's any indication that this might work, maybe the fact that I just bought a car at 16 with my own money will help you feel a little more comfortable." I was able to sustain some kind of income as I went through my undergrad, and I ended up going to music school. I think at the end of the day it was just I had no other choice. I loved it so much and I couldn't see myself doing anything else, so it's kind of that cliché answer of "I didn't pick it; it picked me." But that's really how I felt about it.

So I assume you did end up playing the lead in your high school musical?

I did. [laughs]

What was show?

[sheepishly] I was Valjean in Les Miserables. [laughs] I know - I wasn't a tenor, I'm still not a tenor, but it was a student production so...

You're a graduate of San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellowship and also an alum of their prestigious Merola program. When you look back on those experiences, what do you think have been the lasting benefits?

What was wonderful was [General Director] David Gockley had such an appreciation and an investment really in young singers and I think that's always been the case at San Francisco Opera. A lot of major singers of the last several decades made their American debuts in San Francisco, thinking about Anna Netrebko and singers of that caliber. I was very thankful that San Francisco Opera gave me those opportunities and really the ability to believe in myself, and that they were giving me this opportunity because they thought I could do it. They thought I had something to say and that I could hold my own on a stage like that with singers that were singing all around the world. I was very thankful.

They gave me the proper training to be able to learn as I went. I mean, when I got thrown in for Cenerentola last-minute to replace a colleague that was unfortunately ill, I was stepping into tech week and there were already costumes and the orchestra was already there. I'd only sung the role once with piano all the way through, and it was a new role [for me], but they were so supportive. David Gockley and [Managing Director] Greg Henkel would come to my dressing room and say, "You're doing a great job." and just kind of give me a pat on the back. Those moments were so encouraging because you know these are people who cast entire seasons. To give me that kind of encouragement, it was everlasting for me, in terms of being able to find confidence, which was something that I struggled with a lot as a young singer. I think their training and the support they showed are things I'm going to take with me for a very, very long time.

Given the moment we find our country in with the fight for racial justice and the imperative to make the arts more inclusive, as an artist of color, what do you think the opera world could be doing right now to make more progress on those fronts?

I think part of it has to come from the conservatories. That's where a lot of people who wind up in administration come from as well. They usually were either singers or instrumentalists, pianists, etc. and I think a lot of it falls on education. Being open to yes, of course, doing the classics - I would not be able to sing with the technique that I have today if I hadn't done so much Mozart and Handel in my early years. And also - case in point - you know a Jake Heggie score is not easy, it provides a lot of fun challenges. But - in order to create a more diverse pool of singers, we have to be open to different styles in our training. I had to push for that when I was a young singer, bringing in different repertoire to my teacher that I found interesting.

I found Zarzuela so interesting, and in a lot of ways it was treated as an elective, you know music that was outside of English-French-Italian-German, and things that weren't in the classical or Baroque or Romantic time period. But as opera is evolving, we have to evolve with it. I really think that at the end of the day it comes down to the training we get at conservatory, and they have to take some responsibility for opening up that conversation and making the training more diverse and including composers of color and making that repertoire just as important.

This is obviously not a conversation that was going on ten years ago when I was at conservatory, but now that we are having that conversation, I think a lot of requirements need to shift. And that needs to include not just auditions, but also recital programs, and what operas are chosen for the students every year. There needs to be room for a lot more diversity in that.

I am hopeful. In the next couple of weeks, I have talks with two different schools of music, with their entire voice departments over Zoom, and I know that that's something we're talking about. I mean, the Cruzar la Cara de la Luna series that HGO [Houston Grand Opera] started with these mariachi operas, it's such a blend of styles and it's fascinating. I felt like a rock star at those shows! I would come out and bow and people were screaming. It was not something I'd ever felt singing Mozart. And you know I've done that a lot and I love it, and I know that the audience loves it, but it just doesn't connect with some people that way. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, and I'm not saying that it can't connect with people. It's just that we have to reflect where we're living, we have to reflect our communities, and that requires us evolving. That's something I've really appreciated about Houston Grand Opera bringing in that series of three Mexican operas and I would love to see that happen more.

And I have to say that as an operagoer myself, you have me really intrigued now. I've never seen a Mexican opera.

All I can say is that there was hardly a dry eye onstage most nights. It's very moving and it plays into the more escapist artform that we used to be. Because people would go to the theater to escape, when they would go watch The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It was kind of a reflection of their world, and things like Cruzar are a reflection of our time. People can get lost in it, and I love that. Same thing with Three Decembers. This is a story that still holds true now, and much like when we watch film, we escape into that world. I think it's very possible for us to do that with opera still.

Since we're doing this interview for BroadwayWorld, I just have to ask if you'd be interested in taking on a musical theater role at some point. I saw the gorgeous video you made of "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd.

You know, I would love that. I have always loved musical theater and I've always wanted to go back to it. I love, love, love Sondheim. One of my dream roles is to sing the Baker in Into the Woods. I think he has such a huge journey throughout that show and I would love to go on that journey.

And the Baker gets to sing "No More," which is probably my favorite song in that whole show.

Exactly. I was so sad when they cut it from the film because that's such a crucial moment in the arc of the second act, but especially for the Baker. I've done a solo version of "No More." I stole it from Mandy Patinkin cause he did it on a Sondheim album just as a solo and I've done it a few times in recital. I think Stephen Sondheim is the greatest American composer for musical theater. He's kind of like the Mozart of musical theater. So I sometimes include a Sondheim set, and that one is always on there because it's such a powerful moment.

We'll see... Hopefully one day!




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From This Author Jim Munson