BWW Interview: Jake Heggie, Part 2: Opera Now and in the Future
EM: Is there a plan to record Great Scott?
JH: We're working on it for the premiere production in Dallas. Hopefully then it would be ready in time for San Diego, which would be very exciting.
EM: Everybody's so psyched here. First of all, to have David Bennett on board, who's already accomplished a great deal. I interviewed him recently. He's just a delight, and so committed, as is Carol, and everyone else, to make all of this work. It's nothing short of a miracle.
JH: I feel the same way. Amazing, isn't it?
EM: It's going to be a celebratory season this year, and to have your opera as part of it is wonderful.
JH: I feel really good about it. We worked very hard to get it right. Now we'll have a rehearsal and performance period in Dallas, and I can make some changes if I need to after that to make sure it's in top shape for San Diego.
EM: When it comes to composing operas, you've done some based on true stories, some on novels, and Great Scott, which is totally original. What kinds of story do you like to base an opera on? Do you have any preference? You're writing another one, I believe.
JH: Yes, I've got It's a Wonderful Life in just a year and a half. I have to start writing that, don't I? [Laughs] Of course it'll get done, not a problem. I look for stories that tell transformative, emotional journeys, have big emotional worlds, feel very relevant and true to the times we're living in - even though they might be of a different time - have a sense of real intimacy with larger forces at work, where there's some kind of social injustice and inequity happening that needs to be conquered or addressed. I find historically that's the formula for a lot of successful operas. If you look at Marriage of Figaro or Butterfly or Traviata, all of those elements are in there. I also have to have a very specific location in mind. The physical environment of where the opera takes place is very key - the "sound world."
EM: Wonderful Life is such a timeless story. Can you tell us more?
JH: It's for Houston Grand Opera and opens in December of 2016. The libretto is by Gene Scheer, based on the movie of course, and Gene has sort of invented a whole new world to tell that story on stage. We wanted not just to try to put the movie on stage - that would be pointless. We came up with some exciting inventions, a very special way of telling it. It's going to be done in the smaller theatre in Houston, about 1,000 seats, then at San Francisco Opera in the big hall. So it's got to be a very flexible piece. Gene and I want to write it so that someday down the road community centers or smaller opera companies can do it. I want it to be flexible enough to do in many size houses in different ways.
EM: Do you plan on focusing mainly on opera in the foreseeable future? Do you have other types of projects planned?
JH: I have a lot of projects I get asked for, but the opera house really is my house - my home. It's where I feel comfortable and confident and I get to explore these big human stories and dramas and collaborate with extraordinary people, great talented artists and administrators and other people who are passionate about it and support it. It's like working with a great big family - the family you love [Laughs] and enjoy being with all the time. I could never have imagined my life like this. I get asked to do a lot of choral work, symphonic, chamber, vocal work, but opera is where I'm happiest.
EM: Certainly your passion has been well demonstrated so far, and we look forward to a lot more of it in the future. Would you speak to the future of opera in this country? How do you see things going for opera?
JH: I see it moving in a very positive direction. Lots of smaller companies are popping up. There's great passion to do this work. In outlying communities where people might not be able to get to the big opera house, I see these smaller places not only doing standard works but also very interested in supporting new work. I think there's more new opera being written today than at any time in recent history in this country. It's really remarkable. When I wrote Dead Man Walking it was one of four or five new operas that year. Now 15 years later it's dozens, all shapes and sizes. I find that very inspiring. It means people are looking for ways of doing this - new venues, new locations. I think what people are responding to is getting closer to the actual drama of it. That's what you can do in these smaller houses - get very close to the actual human drama and then prepare for the big community experience of being in the big opera house. This is a really extraordinary time of transition. There's this explosion of new work.
EM: So you feel optimistic that things are beginning to turn around.
JH: Incredibly optimistic. And we have extraordinary young singers like never before, who are eager to do new work. 20 years ago great young singers might not have been interested in that. They just went to standard rep. Now we have young singers who only want to do this work. Young directors and conductors, pianists, designers, all kinds of people coming up are just fired by what can be done in the opera world that can't be done anywhere else.
EM: It's composers like you who are evoking this interest of young singers and love for contemporary opera amongst operagoers. Each one is feeding the other's passion.
JH: It's the only reason to do it, because you're passionate about it and care about it. There's no rational reason why opera should exist. [Laughs] It's expensive, time consuming. Yet in some shape or other it has always existed. We've always told stories through music and rhythm and movement, and what we know as western opera has only been around for a few hundred years and in different forms before that. There is great passion regardless of the fact that it's expensive and people who invest in it are giving money because they believe in it. They're not getting anything back other than satisfaction and enjoyment of hopefully many people having a human, deep, reflective and meditative experience that at its core is incredibly emotional.
EM: Do you think a lot of the smaller companies are going to be able to exist and continue because there are so many great young singers out there?
JH: Absolutely. And we have many of them in the Bay Area. There must be 5 or 6 smaller companies here that do opera outside of the SFO and they all use wonderful singers and do terrific productions. In New York you can't even count how many small opera companies there are now. And they do productions in very intimate spaces. So a whole audience that didn't have opera or theatre in school now gets very close to the drama. It's that kind of singing that might be the "Aha" moment they were looking for. SDO, Opera Philadelphia were touch and go for a while but I think that may be the key, an untapped gold mine that perhaps will help this turnaround. I get asked about the future of opera from young singers a lot. I say, "You're the future of opera. So you need to make those bold choices and reinvent it. Take what you love and take it somewhere else, be creative with it." It's such a versatile art form. The future for opera, as in so many art forms, is in the young people - not just those on stage but those who are coming to the performances.
EM: Opera may only have been around a few hundred years, but it looks like now it's going to regenerate into something entirely special in a different way.
JH: I hear older people who love opera say, "I'm just so worried, it's not going to be done this way anymore." I'm like, "No it won't, but we don't do it the way they did it a hundred or two hundred years ago either." So it's going to look and be different 50 or 100 years from now, but it will be here.
EM: Amen. I have one non-operatic question to ask. You've written a song cycle about 19th century artist Camille Claudel. I'm fascinated with her story. What inspired you to write that piece?
JH: I saw the movie Camille Claudel when it came out in 1989, and from that moment I thought I wanted to do something musically with the story. A few years ago I was asked to do something for voice and string quartet, and managed to convince Joyce DiDonato to be part of it. I thought it was a great opportunity to explore Camille Claudel, so I worked with Gene Scheer. He created texts that combined Claudel's sculptures and life, and it turned out to be an incredibly meaningful project. It gets done quite a bit. Joyce did it at Carnegie Hall recently, Princeton and the Barbican in London and has plans to take it elsewhere. Other singers are doing it too, and we have a beautiful recording of it. It's a really powerful piece and it just seemed right to explore that because again, it's so big emotionally and tells a very difficult and human journey. I just felt like there was a lot to explore.
EM: I agree, and it's such a feminist story - so relevant. It certainly inspires me a great deal, being a woman and an artist in this day and age. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Claudel.
JH: She went through so much brutality and suffering. All she wanted to do was to be taken seriously as an artist - a woman artist, not a French artist. She was born at the wrong time.
EM: It was impossible to separate those things at that time, and even in these times. Jake, is there anything you'd like to add before we wrap up?
JH: Just that I'm so excited to be coming back to San Diego with another new opera. I could never have imagined that. [Laughs] And especially when it looked like the company might close. The people running the company now are heroes of mine. Carol Lazier is a real hero, and I think David Bennett is just extraordinary. The whole team at SDO, I just believe in them so much. I'm excited for the SDO audience and hopefully new audience members to experience Great Scott. It's not going to be like anything they've experienced in the opera before.
EM: As I wrote in my interviews with David (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interview-David-Bennett-Starts-His-SDO-Journey-Part-1-20150709), (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interview-David-Bennett-Part-2-New-Seasons-New-Concepts-20150709), as soon as he came into the office the atmosphere became so light, like the stars all aligned and everything was right. We thank those stars everyday that things happened the way they did, and we're absolutely thrilled that you're going to be here and bring this wonderful piece to us. I can't thank you enough. Thank you so much for spending time with me, and for bringing Great Scott to the SDO stage. I look forward to seeing you again, shaking your hand and congratulating you.
JH: It was my pleasure, Erica. I appreciate your wanting to write about it.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist