A conversation with Jake Heggie

A conversation with Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie‘s career reads like something out of a movie. He wanted to be a pianist and a composer but he developed problems with his hands. Unable to pursue his original goal, he wound up working in the P.R. department of San Francisco Opera while continuing to write songs on the side. Singers liked him, and his music, and he had some champions, including Frederica von Stade, who kept talking about him to the company’s General Director, Lotfi Mansouri. One day Mansouri gave Heggie the break of a lifetime and the result was the opera Dead Man Walking, based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. Heggie wrote the music, Terrence McNally wrote the libretto. The opera received mixed reviews from critics when it debuted in 2000 but was a huge hit with audiences. Since then it’s been performed around the world and recorded twice, and Heggie’s gone on to have a string of successes, most notably an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

Jake Heggie in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

Jake Heggie in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

This weekend Dead Man Walking returns to San Francisco for the first time since its premiere in a new orchestration and production by Opera Parallèle. The following week the Berkeley Symphony performs the premiere of Heggie’s own reorchestration of Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, an operatic song cycle he originally composed for the Alexander String Quartet and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. The premiere of Camille Claudel in 2012 made it onto many top ten lists that year, including my own.

Heggie is currently at work on two new operas: Great Scott (with a libretto by McNally) for The Dallas Opera in 2015, and an opera based on It’s A Wonderful Life  (with a libretto by Gene Scheer, who also wrote the libretto for Moby-Dick) for the Houston Grand Opera in 2016. He’s composed more than 250 art songs, as well as concerti, chamber music, choral and orchestral works. We had the following conversation on the phone on February 9th, 2015.

Mark Rudio: I want to start at the beginning of your operatic composing career because it’s such an unusual story. It’s not quite Horatio Alger, but it does have some very similar aspects.  What year was it when Lotfi [Lofti Mansouri, General Director of San Francisco Opera from 1988 until 2001] approached you about doing Dead Man Walking?

Jake Heggie: I had been writing a lot of songs, especially for Flicka [Frederica von Stade], but also for Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, and a bunch of other people. Lotfi was aware that I was doing songs and people kept saying to him ‘Do you know this guy in your PR department that writes songs?’

JH: He was paying attention, and one day  we were at a party and out of the blue he asked me about the songs. I thought he was just making polite conversation. He said ‘You’re writing all of these songs all of these years– have you ever thought about writing an opera?’ I said no, and he said ‘Well, we should talk about it.’  I thought that would be the end of that– you know, polite conversation at a party, and lo and behold the next day he called me into his office and said ‘Let’s talk about your opera– we have a space in the 2000-2001 season and we’ll send you to New York to meet Terrence McNally. We’ve been trying to get him to write something and I think you guys would be a good team.’ So there I was with my jaw open thinking what are you talking about ? He didn’t have a subject in mind, in fact what he had wanted at that point was a comedy– something bubbly for the millennium, light, fun and entertaining.

MR: So how did Mansouri’s wish for something fun and bubbly turn into Dead Man Walking?

Jake: First I went to New York and I met with Terrence. That was in 1996. He was busy with a bunch of other projects and he asked if I had a subject in mind. I told him that Lotfi had requested a comedy. We had a good first meeting and then I didn’t hear from him for a while. It seemed pretty much like he had let it go. Then in January of ’97 I sent him a recording of a recent piece I had written that Flicka had premiered and it happened to arrive the day he also was at Carnegie Hall and heard Renée Fleming singing American Songs. He had gone backstage to say hello to her and she and her manager Matthew Epstein cornered him and said, ‘You really need to write an opera libretto and there’s only one composer you should work with and that’s Jake Heggie.’

JH: So he took all of this coming at him as ‘you need to do this project’ and he called me. I really thought he was not going to be interested in doing anything, and then he called me out of the blue and said “Yes, I want to do it, let’s talk about subject.” So we started tossing ideas back and forth and then he came to San Francisco in the summer of ’97 with a list of ten ideas and he said ‘I’ve written down 10 big ideas. I think they’re all pretty good but there’s only one that I really want to do– but it has to be the same one that you want to do or we shouldn’t work together.’ And the first thing he said was Dead Man Walking.  I was stunned and surprised, and immediately felt music in the idea, that it was a story that would make sense in the opera house because of the size of the emotions. It would make sense for people to sing rather than speak and the possibilities for ensembles and for exploring new territory, as well as honoring the past because it was a story that fell in line historically– all these things came at me at once and I just knew thatwas the idea. He read the whole list but that was the only one I can remember because I realized what a great idea it was. So it worked out okay.

MR: Do you ever think about what you’d be doing right now if that never happened?

Jake: Oh, sure. You can live your life in what is or you can just deal with what happened. I was given an amazing opportunity, but I wasn’t unhappy at that time. Lotfi still wanted me to write an opera, whether it was with Terrence McNally or not. I can only speculate that it might not have been as strong a piece, or as well received, or as controversial– we might have gone a safer route. I was very happy writing songs and writing about the opera company for the press, so I really loved that job. I liked the people I worked with, I got to go to every rehearsal, I was in every corner of the Opera House talking with everybody to find information for articles for stories about things that the press might be interested in and I was fascinated by the whole thing. So it certainly would have been different, but Lotfi was still committed to having me write an opera which is sort of remarkable no matter what.

MR: Yet for every Jake Heggie there are countless Camille Claudels– artists with incredible talent and their own unique visions who never find an audience, at least in their lifetime.

Jake: The timing isn’t right. They don’t get the opportunity. That’s what was amazing for me, that there was this impresario who believed in me. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He could have given that commission to any of a thousand composers. Luckily I was young and naïve and I didn’t realize what a controversial thing that was, and how much animosity there was towards me as an unproven opera composer getting this huge opportunity. But Lotfi wanted to discover someone and what’s great now, and I hope Dead Man Walkingwas part of this, is that when I wrote that piece it was one of maybe half a dozen big new works in a year and now there seems to be a new one every other week. There’s so much more opportunity for young composers in the opera field, to the point where there are all these cultivation programs. I was part of one with the Washington National Opera, where I worked with young composers and librettists, but there are several companies now where they look at new work and will sometimes choose one or two to perform, and they’re doing them for different sized ensembles and theaters, and different subjects and it’s kind of a remarkable time for American opera. It’s very exciting.

MR: You’re queuing up a question I was going to leave toward the end, but I think I’m going to pick up the thread and segue into it early. You’re right, this really is interesting time in American opera. There’s a lot going on, and as I’m sure you know when the Herbst Theater reopens next year there’s going to be an additional small theater in there allowing San Francisco Opera to perform chamber operas and what I hope will be more new, contemporary operas. Opera Parallèle and West Edge Opera are just two of the many local organizations doing really interesting things in opera, but despite all that there’s a constant conversation about the graying of the audience and the death of classical music…

Jake: [laughing] Please… no, it’s not true at all.

MR: But things are obviously changing: the subscription model is dead even if some people haven’t realized it yet, and there is a huge transformation taking place, but I don’t think anyone’s figured out exactly what’s going on.

Jake: But that’s the arts. They’re constantly changing and evolving or  they’re dead. It’s when things become predictable that the fascination stops. It’s always this way. Plus there are economic factors that play into it, and public tastes based on popular culture, or how people are getting their information. Those things all change too, so yes, the art form evolves constantly. We don’t present it today the way it was presented 100 or 200 years ago and it will be completely different 100 years from now. That’s part of the fascination with it. It does go through these transformation and changes, but the basic art form itself remains, that we tell stories with music and with words.

MR: Have you had a chance to attend the Prototype Festival in New York?

Jake: I have not but I know people who’ve been involved in it and I certainly know what it’s all about.

MR: I think San Francisco really needs its own version of the Protoype Festival. We certainly have enough talent in the Bay Area to create something similar. Do you agree there’s a hunger for a festival like that here?

Jake: Totally.

MR: I can see people like Erling Wold, Elkhanah Pulitzer and Chip Grant being involved, Opera Parallèle and West Edge obviously, along with so many others. Who can make something like that happen here? What do you think is missing to get a Prototype established in San Francisco?

Jake: All of those festivals happen because there’s a really bold, brave person who’s willing to devote all of their time and energy to it and is able to raise the money for it and organize people. It takes someone who wants to do it and make it happen and has the connections, the vision and the time to really pull it all together. There are always very few giants at any time in any field so it’s just a matter of finding the right person and identifying the right person who could take it forward.

MR: Do you want to name anybody who could pick up that ball and run with it?

Jake: No, I think they know who they are and they’ll be there when it’s time and when they’re ready. That’s the amazing thing about this whole art form– it pops up in the most remarkable ways. Five years ago, ten years ago would we have even predicted Prototype would even exist and that it would have taken off like this? Opera Parallèle was just emerging and now has become a really remarkable center for new opera in the City. I think all of these smaller companies and different visions that people have helps the general case for community theater and opera in the Bay Area at large because it means that it’s a live art form; it’s evolving and it’s changing and it’s being done in many different ways, and that helps the main opera houses as well.

MR: Fifteen years after its premiere in 2000, how do you feel about Dead Man Walking now?

Jake: I sit back in wonder that I had the nerve to write a piece of that scale and that size as my first opera. When I was doing it made total sense. I had the full support of the company and Terrence and it all felt very exciting and fresh and doable. Now I sort of sit back and think how did I have the nerve to take on this massive story with this massive cast and chorus, and orchestra? And now I understand why people were dubious. But I just had this sort of naïve optimism at that point and I think I still do with every project I take on– I feel like I’m climbing another mountain, but what an exciting mountain to climb. I do appreciate it [Dead Man Walking] because I think it works. It’s one of those things where you can’t say exactly which element is the reason that makes it work, but I think it’s a combination of things: it’s got a brilliant libretto; it’s brilliantly paced in terms of characters and their introductions and development, when they appear, when they disappear, etcetera; how people interact, and I think I found the right musical world for all of those characters to live in and to emerge within. You can’t say there’s one particular reason or not– it just seems to work. I’ve seen it now all over the world and it just works for audiences everywhere, I think mostly because we focused on the big human drama. We weren’t making a political statement or trying to persuade people to feel or think one way or the other. We were just drawing them into a story and telling them a fascinating American human drama.

MR: Is there anything about it you would go back and change or revise?

Jake: Oh, sure. If I wanted to there are things I would redo. There are probably places I would cut and places I would expand, but the piece works and it’s done and it represents the composer I was at that time in my life and I have moved on to create other works and I’m a different composer now. So if I wrote Dead Man Walking today would it sound completely different then it did when I wrote it all those years ago? Absolutely. But that’s who I was at that point and I’m very proud of it and I don’t want to mess with it.

MR: I ask because I know at one point you completely scrapped everything you wrote for Moby Dick and started over, and that’s a luxury you have now that you probably wouldn’t have even thought about when you were writing Dead Man Walking.

Jake: [laughing] There were plenty of things I scrapped when I wrote Dead Man. I still write everything by hand and part of why I do that is because I feel more physically connected to the work and that if I’m going to set it down on paper I’m convinced that I’m nearly there, but it also gives me permission to make a physical mess, which I need to do in order to find the final answer or the way that I really want it to go. But I made a lot of messes while I was writing Dead Man Walking and I threw away tons of sketches. And unfortunately I actually did throw the paper away. I learned later that I’m supposed to keep everything, so now I keep everything but back then I would throw stuff away.

MR: Future musicologists are going really disappointed to learn that.

Jake: Well it was actually Stephen Sondheim who told me that I’m not allowed to throw anything away. He said ‘You probably think no one’s interested in that– it’s just sketch, who cares?’ Or else you’re embarrassed about it, and all of the above is true, but he said ‘Don’t throw away your sketches– that’s the part that is interesting for people who care about your work’ and then I realized he was probably right so I haven’t thrown away anything since.

MR: Let’s talk about Camille Claudel. I was in the house for the premiere by the Alexander String Quartet and Joyce DiDonato and it impressed me so much that I wrote at the time I would really like to see this done as a full-blown opera. Now you have an orchestrated version of the piece premiering with Sasha Cooke and the Berkeley Symphony later this month. Did you rewrite any of the vocal parts specifically for Sasha?

Jake: I did not. I think the piece is the piece and I wrote for the character of Camille Claudel, even though I was dressing it on Joyce, who just sang it at Carnegie Hall last week and it went extremely well. I don’t read reviews, but my partner does, and I finally got good reviews in The New York Times and The Financial Times! No, I didn’t because that’s another one where I feel strongly that the piece exists as it should. I really feel it’s doable as it’s written and it is the expression that I was looking for that character and that emotional world. Orchestrating it was actually really hard, and more challenging than I thought it would be. I was very happy with how it existed when I wrote it for string quartet, but I knew there was more emotional material to mine and that the orchestra could illuminate that emotional world even more, so I sort of had to let go of how I had locked my mind into the world of the string quartet and open it up to a broader palette of colors. That was very challenging, but it was very interesting– I had never reorchestrated something of mine before. Once it’s out there it’s done.

JH: I am also very busy, so regarding this reorchestration of Dead Man Walking that Nicole [Paiement, Artistic Director, Conductor, Founder of Opera Parallèle] did, what she’s done is taken something that was a reduction created by a couple of people over the past few years and further distilled it. She’s extremely talented this way, making it work for the size of the space and for the size of the orchestra that she wants, and with my blessing because I believe in her. I didn’t even need to see what she did because I just trust her– she has such great respect for the work itself. That’s the thing– in any creative process it’s the people you work with, and if everyone is about the work, and your focus is on the work and it’s not their own personal agenda then good things can happen. It’s when someone is in it for a different reason than work, that’s when problems happen and Nicole is all about the work

MR: How long did it take you to do the orchestration?

Jake: For Camille Claudel it took me about two and a half months, and a piece that size I would normally be able to orchestrate in 3 or 4 weeks at the most. It was challenging, but it was good for me. I felt like I really had to revisit the emotional world and I needed to figure out how that could be expanded for a full orchestra.

MR: Where does that leave making it into a complete opera at this point?

Jake: I knew after the premiere that I had said what I needed to say with Camille Claudel. I did think about expanding it into a full opera for a while, but I realized when I first wrote the piece it was a very, very difficult piece to write because Camille is going through such a dark journey and the joy of her early years is quickly left behind. There is not a lot of joy in her early years, in fact it’s almost all darkness and living in that world, even writing the songs was very challenging emotionally and the thought of living in it for 2 years or so to create a full opera was too much for me personally. That’s why I really feel like I’ve said what I have to say about her life and work with this very operatic song cycle. I would like to see it staged at some point and I think it could have some beautiful visuals and there can even be an element of choreography and dancers involved. That would be really fascinating and illuminating.

JH: I have a lot of mental illness in my family history and the hard part of writing the piece is that Camille knows something is terribly wrong but she can’t identify it, because of course that’s the nature of mental illness: even if you know something is going wrong you don’t know what to do or how to fix it until it consumes you, and then you have no perspective anymore. That’s the heartbreak of it and the challenge is to find that in music and drama without condescending, to remain respectful with this perspective and not lose myself in it– that’s what I mean by condescending, that I would be losing myself in it.

JH: I don’t want do that– I like to be emotionally invested but hold a distance so that I have perspective and I was finding that very difficult as I was continuing to write the song cycle.

MR: Are your next two works, Great Scott and It’s a Wonderful Life a deliberate move away from the darkness of Camille Claudel?

Jake: Yes. They still go very, very deep, but I want every project to challenge me in a different way. I don’t want to keep repeating myself so I look for something that scares me in some way and with Great Scott, the original story that we’re creating that has no real basis in literature or in theater. That was very scary, also the fact that it has an element of comedy, which I haven’t really pursued even though I love humor and I love to laugh. But I figure I know how to do big drama now, from Dead Man Walking to Camille Claudel, even Moby DickThe End of the Affair  and Three Decembers -– all of those are big dramas. And so I thought to really pull myself out of the box why not challenge myself with something that has a lot of comedy in it, and I have discovered that it is true: dying is but easy comedy is hard.

JH: But I wanted to come up with a different challenge and Joyce [DiDonato] loved the idea and so did Terrence and now we have [stage director] Jack O’Brien on it and it is challenging in a very different way– it’s hard. And then It’s a Wonderful Life is hard in another way because that’s an iconic film and you can’t just put the movie onto the stage. We have to make it work on stage as an opera, but at its heart it is about a very dark moment in a man’s life, when he’s thinking of taking his life and jumping off a bridge and leaving his family and everyone behind because, as the banker Mister Potter tells him, ‘Why George, you’re worth more dead than alive.’ He can’t face the world anymore– I mean that’s a huge operatic gesture. So it seemed operatic at its core, but it also has wonderful moments of lightness as well, so it was going from Moby Dick into Camille Claudel, into something lighter that has great heart, which is Great Scott and then into something that also has a very serious core but also a lightness in it which is It’s a Wonderful Life

MR: The themes in Great Scott also resonate with the tensions between the performing arts and popular culture. That’s a fascinating topic for a lot of people.

Jake: It’s what we struggle with every day. The only reason we are in the performing arts is because we have great passion for it. It moves us, It inspires us.  It brings us great joy and we can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not that I have disdain for popular culture, I just feel more at home in the depth and breadth of the performing arts, and especially the opera world. And that juxtaposition of how we have to justify what we do every day in a world dominated by popular culture– some people say ‘Why do you care? Why do you bother with these old pieces? Who cares?’ Well, I care, and I think a lot of other people care and that’s pretty much at the core of Great Scott –- why do we sacrifice so much to perpetuate this and bring it to life? Not only as it was, but as it is now, and as it will exist in the future– just like what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation. As Terrence puts it, the night that this opera company [the fictional opera company in Great Scott] is doing this 200 year-old work that’s never been performed is the same night that the Super Bowl is taking place across town. So they really do have to question why they’re doing this and why there making this sacrifice– struggling so much to make this happen.

JH: It’s a wonderfully sort of ironic and comic situation to start with and is fraught with a lot of emotions. There are a lot of people in opera of course that love sports and it’s been really fun to be at the opera house when the Giants have been in the World Series and they’re broadcasting the scores during the intermission on the super titles screen. All through the opera house they have TVs on so people can watch the game during breaks. It’s kind of remarkable that all happened as Terence was thinking about the story of Great Scottbecause we do live in a world where those exist side by side and if the opera world doesn’t embrace it it’s going to become irrelevant. We have to take it on.

MR: And yet at the same time it’s becoming increasingly incumbent on the artist to have to play the role of advocate. That’s an added responsibility, even a burden, when you’re being asked not only to create the art but to promote it as well.

Jake: Yes, that’s something I’ve had from the very beginning but I actually don’t look at it as a burden. I’m able to do it and I’m able to do it well, and I am very grateful to be able to talk to people who care enough about it and are interested enough to listen.  I think we are extremely lucky right now that Joyce DiDonato is a big spokesperson for the arts– she is so eloquent and people care about what she has to say because they love her, and I love her on the stage. She can transform a room by speaking like almost no one I’ve ever seen and I don’t think she looks at it as a burden– I think she looks at it as a great privilege– and that’s sort of the mindset we have to get to.

MR: But I think a lot of people don’t have the same level of comfort acting as a spokesperson for their particular art form that you and Joyce do, and they take on the role reluctantly as an expected part of what they have to do as an artist because the traditional advocates have all but disappeared.

Jake: [Advocacy for the arts] has disappeared from education at a grassroots level. There’s a whole generation maybe even two, that have grown up with no exposure to the performing arts at school, and so artists who are lucky enough to make their life in it have to be a spokesperson and reach out to young people and be part of their lives and tell them why it matters. I think we’re finding that more and more, it has to happen at a  grass-roots level.

MR: What’s next for you after Great Scott and It’s a Wonderful Life?

Jake: I’m writing songs for Susan Graham and a few other people, and I am also looking at another full-scale opera for about four or five years from now that I can’t talk about.

MR: Have you ever read The Ambassadors by Henry James?

Jake: No, I haven’t but I love Henry James. I actually thought The Wings of the Dove would be a great opera at one point.

MR: Well before you commit to take the on The Wings of the Dove, please read The Ambassadors because it reminds me of a comment you once made about your interest in material you once described as “a personal transformation at a critical moment in a person’s life where they’re dealing with large, uncontrollable forces at work beyond them”– I read that and thought ‘he should do The Ambassadors.’ And parts of it are quite humorous.

Jake: Great. I will definitely read it. I love getting ideas.

MR: Is there anything particular about San Francisco you feel is conducive to making art or that’s special about living here as an artist?

Jake: Yes, I feel there is incredible support and interest in the performing arts here and that’s been the history of this City all the way through, whether you’re interested in going to the Haight or going to the Opera House. There’s music happening all over the city in many different capacities and I find immense support and interest for exploration. For me it’s conducive to being creative because I feel like I can be very private in this city as well as public, and I feel like I’m off the radar screen from the pressure of the East Coast. I feel like I can breathe out here and I can try things, explore, and it feels like home. Artists have always flocked to San Francisco -– there’s something about the air, and the environment and that we’re surrounded by water -– I find all of that incredibly inspiring, relaxing and invigorating all at the same time.

Header photo by of Jake Heggie by Peter DaSilva.

If you liked this, like A Beast on Facebook.