When Opera Tackles a "World at War"


Composer Jake Heggie is a big deal in the world of opera. Back in 1996, he was working in the public relations office of the San Francisco Opera and writing music in his spare time when Lotfi Mansouri, then the SF Opera's general director, plucked him out of obscurity and commissioned him to write a new work in collaboration with Terrence McNally, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The opera they came up with, Dead Man Walking, was based on a book by anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean that had been made into a movie in 1995. Their opera won critical raves and played to standing-room-only crowds when it premiered in San Francisco four years ago.

On Mar. 4, the 42-year-old Heggie has a new work coming out at the Houston Grand Opera that I think is going to be very exciting. The End of the Affair, based on the 1951 Graham Green novel of the same name, was written with playwright Heather McDonald and is already nearly sold out. The HGO (www.houstongrandopera.org), which commissioned the work, is widely regarded as one of the nation's most innovative opera companies. I expect The End of the Affair to be reviewed by critics from around the country, so if you're interested in tickets, act now.

And if you're thinking opera can't be that popular, think again. According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey from last year, 6.6 million Americans attended a live opera performance in 2002 (see BW Online, 8/12/03, "The Fat Lady Keeps on Singing").

If you want to check out Heggie's previous compositions, both Dead Man Walking (Elektra/Asylum, $33.98) and The Faces of Love (RCA, $14.99), a collection of songs sung by such well-known singers as Ren?e Fleming, Sylvia McNair, and Frederica von Stade, are available on CD. Though I've never heard it live, I love Heggie's work. I recently caught up with him by phone at his home in San Francisco to discuss what he's up to these days. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: How are the rehearsals of The End of the Affair going?

A: So well. I'm so happy. I like music-theater rather than traditional stand-there-and-sing opera. I like a very realistic and gripping theatrical experience with singing actors, and the members of this cast are all great singing actors. [In rehearsals] the piece immediately started to jump off the page and live even more dramatically and intensely than I had imagined [it would].

Q: Do you think The End of the Affair has the same potential for popularity as Dead Man Walking?

A: I actually do. I think we find ourselves in a world very like the world [Green] describes in the novel, which takes place during and after the blitz [of London during World War II]. It was a period when the whole world seemed to be falling apart. We're struggling with [similar] things right now. We experienced a huge attack on this country, and we're in a world at war -- a very different war, but still in a world at war.

It's [also] an amazing story that's innately operatic. When you've got your lead soprano suddenly on her knees after an explosion begging God to let her lover live and [promising to] give him up forever [if he's spared] -- that's pretty operatic.

Q: How do you work with the librettist, the person who writes the words? It seems like a partnership fraught with potential conflict.

A: What usually happens when I'm working with a writer is that the writer gives me a lot of words, and I see what resonates musically. Then I start writing [music], and if the music takes me in a different direction, we have to collaborate and find words that work with the music.

Q: Terrence McNally is a very prominent playwright. Were you able to just throw out parts of what he wrote? Did he accept that?

A: Oh, yeah. He told me right from the start: "I'm not a librettist, I'm not a poet, I'm not a lyricist. I'm a playwright. So, what I'm going to hope to do is write [words] that inspire you. When it takes you in another direction, just call me or write [new] words yourself, and we'll go over them together. But first and foremost the music has to lead." It was the same way with Heather McDonald.

Q: Both of your operas have been films before they became operas. Is it important to have that sort of name recognition?

A: Name recognition has always been important in opera. Even back to the earliest operas, they used famous myths and legends that people were already familiar with. To ask people to go into a story with unfamiliar characters, plot, plus unfamiliar music, is asking a lot. There needs to be some hook of familiarity that an audience can relate to. That has been pretty true throughout history.

Q: Some people have criticized you for not being edgy or avant-garde enough. I'm not entirely sure what that means.

A: I'm not sure what it means, either. I've read everything from praise to complete condemnation of what I do. Frankly, I have to just do what I think is right that serves the drama, the singers, and the audience. I'm very aware of the audience. I am the composer I am because I grew up watching TV for hours in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a kid -- and going to lots of musicals and films, and being tuned into the music and theater of my time.

Q: What's your feeling about the future of opera generally?

A: Very positive. We've experienced, obviously, a big drop in philanthropy in the last few years because the economy has been so weak. There are signs that that's turning around, which will help a lot. Also, I hear more and more about [opera companies] being willing to do their first world premier [of a new opera]. Opera [companies] are [even] banding together to create new works. What they're recognizing is that the community actually gets excited about world premiers.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I'm writing a musical with Terrence McNally.

Q: What sort of musical?

A: Well, it's based on an original story of his. It has been commissioned by a theater company that's not based in New York. But they haven't announced it yet, so I can't tell you details.

Q: Are there any popular musicians you like?

A: I listen to all the new shows out on Broadway. I also really like Rufus Wainright, Nora Jones, and Diana Krall. And I love Bette Midler's new album. It's a tribute to Rosemary Clooney that's just sensational.

Q: What do you think when you see something like the Super Bowl halftime show?

A: I'm very distressed by it. I find that there's a meanness that has crept into popular culture, a meanness and rudeness that I know I don't respond to and that I find very distressing. By Thane Peterson


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