BWW Interview: Composer Jake Heggie Roots for the Home Team
Jake Heggie has a unique background (http://jakeheggie.com). He not only speaks with intelligence and humor, but a physical disability spun his life into a direction he never could have anticipated. I met the composer in advance of his 2012 Moby-Dick premiere at San Diego Opera and was delighted at the chance to interview him this past summer about his exciting new opera, Great Scott, which premieres at Dallas Opera on Oct. 30 and at SDO May 7, 2016 (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/GreatScott). Here, the talented, exceptionally articulate San Francisco-based composer discusses opera, football and the struggle that goes on between sports and arts.
EM: I was reading about your commissions and all the things you're involved in. It's totally insane. How do you keep your equilibrium?
JH: That's a very good question. [Laughs] It's a daily struggle to make sure there's balance, but personally I just feel so fortunate to be able to do something I love so much that I don't complain about being too busy. It's about finding balance and joy. I love what I do and I'm very lucky to be busy doing it. There will be a time when I won't be so busy [Laughs].
EM: Doing what you love is all-important, and being as successful at it as you are is impressive to say the least. When you were working at San Francisco Opera, in something unrelated to composition, were you already an opera lover?
JH: I had an appreciation for opera. I think I had become closer to it because in Los Angeles after I had lost the use of my right hand for a while from playing the piano and I was doing administrative stuff I actually had time to go to the opera for the first time in my life, and L.A. Opera was doing some amazing productions. I'd been lucky enough in my early 20s to see Jon Vickers do Peter Grimes and Frederica von Stade do Cenerentola. I turned pages for great singers when I was a student at UCLA - recitals by Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto and Monserrat Caballe, Tatiana Troyanos, Kiri Te Kanawa. It was an amazing experience.
EM: That might elicit just a little bit of love for opera, yes?
JH: I didn't really love the opera until I saw this Wozzeck that Simon Rattle conducted at L.A. Opera back in '89 or '90, a storybook Cosi Fan Tutte, David Hockney's Frau Ohne Schatten production and Tosca with Maria Ewing - Domingo was supposed to conduct but the tenor on stage got sick so Domingo ran up and sang the whole performance - one of those magical moments. Then I moved to San Francisco, which is really an opera town. I got the job there, and all of a sudden was really immersed and had an extraordinary affection, developed a real closeness to it. I felt it sort of rattling in my bones everyday, shattered to my core.
EM: How would you describe your position there?
JH: My job was the best apprenticeship you could have imagined for someone who was going to write an opera. I never knew I was going to write an opera - I just had an appreciation everyday for the experience. I wasn't thinking, this will inform my work when I write an opera. I wasn't thinking I would ever write an opera. So my job as a PR marketing writer was to get to know every single part of that opera house, what was going on, the administration, wig, costume and scenery, props. Taking the soloists for interviews, working with conductors, sitting in on rehearsals, going to a lot of performances when I was there to cover for the press, getting to know the press and managers and donors. The whole gamut of what's involved in the opera. I felt like Cinderella - or "Cinderfella" [Laughs]. It was just this magical time. Around that time I got the use of my right hand back to play the piano, and I started composing again. I wrote songs for these great singers, and they loved and wanted to do them. Lucky for me Lotfi Mansouri was the impresario and general director, an extraordinary person who was willing to take a chance on a complete unknown and give a major opera commission to the guy who was the PR marketing writer. [Laughs]
EM: He introduced you to Terrence McNally. What was that first meeting like?
JH: I was a nervous wreck. Terrence was very busy, in the process of moving from his place in Chelsea, so when I got there he was packing up records and books and was writing the book for the musical Ragtime. He was very nice, just preoccupied. I brought with him an idea for an opera, because Lotfi wanted to do this French comedy that he really loved and Terrence McNally could not have been less interested [Laughs]. We hit it off fine. He liked my music. About a year went by. I was still at my desk job, thought he didn't want to do the project. Lo and behold he just called me out of the blue one day - Renée Fleming had told him he had to do an opera with me - and he said, "I really want to do this piece with you." I was bowled over. All of a sudden the air was rattling with possibilities. But he wasn't interested in comedy. He wanted to do a big American drama. It took a while to find the idea. We kept throwing things back and forth. Then he said he was walking down the street one day and the thought of Dead Man Walking just floated into his head. That's what we went with. Lotfi didn't get his comedy but he did get a very powerful American drama. [Laughs]
EM: It's had a very potent effect on everyone who's seen it.
JH: Yes, remarkable. I had no idea it would be so well received or that it would go on to have the life that it has seen. It's already had about 45 productions internationally, and many scheduled into the future. You can't predict that kind of thing. It's a combination of things. I think the music welcomes people in while still challenging them and giving them a real theatrical experience - great beauty and wrenching drama. Terrence McNally wrote a magnificent libretto, beautifully paced and structured.
EM: He's a magnificent writer. It's also a story that resonates with our times.
JH: Very relevant and pertinent. It's one of those universal stories that will always grip people because it's about things we deal with all the time - issues people grapple with. It's very popular in countries that don't have the death penalty. They don't see it as a death penalty opera, but a powerful human drama.
EM: How did the story for Great Scott come into being? It seems not based on anything except McNally's and your inspiration together.
JH: We had been thinking about doing another opera together. He was supposed to do the libretto for Moby-Dick, and had to withdraw early on for personal reasons. Gene Scheer did a magnificent job of working with that. Dallas Opera asked me to do my next opera. I really wanted it to be a piece for Joyce (DiDonato). Terrence initially proposed this really dark drama that [Laughs] I didn't want any part of. I said, "How about we find something very relevant today but also has great heart but also great fun. Something where we can laugh as well as cry." His eyes lit up, and he took it as a big challenge and invented this whole world. Joyce was very excited about and committed to it. He thought about Dallas as well, and the things that matter there, and the dilemma the arts are in, between the performing arts and popular culture, how performing arts have been sidelined from popular culture over the years. Every town has this duality of sports and arts and the struggle that goes on between those two. I think that really set his mind on fire. He came up with this great idea, a celebration of opera - a depiction of the struggles we all go through when we love the arts and want to sacrifice so much for them, and really what is the payoff for all that sacrifice. It also addresses the idea of, "Why do we keep doing these two- and three-hundred-year-old operas? Why aren't we doing new work only? What is the validity, what is the relevance for that?" He pulls all those ideas into question in this grand story. It's very challenging to write, I think harder than anything I've written before, because it's not based on anything, it's completely original. We didn't know what it was till we heard it in workshops. We constantly were rewriting, redoing, tinkering and changing characters, adding different dimensions to them, or to the story or plot, moving whole scenes around. It was very challenging because I write everything by hand, so it's not just a matter of flipping something on the computer, it's rewriting from the beginning.
EM: No cut and paste.
JH: No cut and paste. [Laughs]
EM: Football and opera generally are not thought of as belonging in the same universe. You've managed to bring those two concepts together.
JH: They are together all the time. A lot of sports fans go to the opera and a lot of opera people love sports. We think of them as these separate entities, yet they are both events that involve a community of devoted people who care passionately about them. I've been at our opera house in San Francisco where it's the same night as, for example, when the Giants were in the World Series, and at intermission or breaks during the performance they put the score up on the supertitles. They had TVs around the opera house that at breaks you could go out and watch what was going on. It was so exciting. It really brought a different kind of energy to the opera house, like we were all rooting for the home team, not just the baseball team but the opera company, too. We're all rooting for our home teams.
EM: That's so true.
JH: And there are different kinds of quarterbacks. Like Arden Scott, this great opera singer, is the quarterback for this company and she has to be on her game and perform at top level. She's carrying the whole evening the same way a quarterback does in the Super Bowl. There's a lot of pressure on that guy, you know. [Laughs]
EM: Hearing that, I don't think I'm ever going to see and hear opera the same way again. How did bringing Great Scott to San Diego Opera come about? Last year when all the difficult stuff was happening here, once in a while we'd say for comic relief, "You know, Jake Heggie should really write an opera about this."
JH: Isn't it amazing? This is how prescient Terrence is in his work. He really sees where things are. In this story there's a young, hungry Eastern European soprano who wants to be super famous, and manages to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. He thought of that long before Renée Fleming actually sang the national anthem there, or Joyce sang it at the World Series. He anticipated that, he tells the future. He's kind of amazing. [Laughs] When the whole situation with SDO was going down, I thought, "Wow, this is more timely and relevant than ever." I was of course concerned that, what if the company fails, or does survive but doesn't have the resources to continue with Great Scott, how sad that would be. But Carol Lazier is a real hero. She wanted to make sure that collaboration went forward. She's an amazing lady.
EM: I call her our "Opera Angel."
JH: She is. There's a character very much like her in Great Scott, Winnie Flato, performed by Frederica von Stade, who runs the opera company and is the big champion for it, puts her heart and soul into making sure it goes forward. I'm so glad that person and all these unsung heroes will have a voice in Great Scott.
EM: That's going to cause a great deal of joy and a lot of emotion here, too. Have you met with any of the other big stars singing in San Diego yet?
JH: I've met with Anthony Roth Costanzo (plays The Stage Manager). Michael Mayes (Wendell Swann) is very close to me. I have never worked with Isabel Leonard (Arden Scott in San Diego; Joyce di Donato plays the role in the Dallas premiere). We've known each other for years. I'm going to see the Cold Mountain premiere (Santa Fe) in a few weeks, so we'll catch up. I'm sure I'll be in touch with her before the San Diego production. Nathan Gunn (plays Sid Taylor) I've known for years and I've written songs for him but never a role. He'll be doing it in Dallas as well. And Flicka. Joyce El-Khoury (plays Tatyana Bakst) I've heard great things about but never met her. I'm very excited to work with her.
EM: It sounds like a wonderful cast. We're so excited about it.
JH: I'm so glad to hear it. The conductor in San Diego, Joseph Mechavich, was our hero in Moby-Dick. He was so great in that production. I know he did Nixon in China there as well.
EM: When it comes to contemporary opera he is absolutely outstanding.
JH: I've also heard him do bel canto work. Great Scott takes a conductor who not only has solid chops with opera but also in musical theatre, and especially bel canto because of course there's a bel canto opera within the opera. It's a wonderful, weird combination of skills that are required of the conductor. If it's someone who's only immersed in classical music or only immersed in contemporary music or musicals it's going to be problematic. It has to be someone who really has the full range. Joey's got that.
Next, Part 2: Opera Now and in the Future
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist