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Composing a Life

Jake Heggie has overcome some dark days to ascend to the top of his profession. MATTHEW SIGMAN sits down with the composer for a preview of Great Scott, opening in Dallas in October.

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Photographed by Karen Almond at the Winspear Opera House, home of Dallas Opera
Suit by Hugo Boss / Clothes styling: Carol Sandlin / Grooming: Kim Dawson Agency
© Karen Almond 2015
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At Houston Grand Opera in 2008, with Frederica von Stade in the world premiere of Last Acts
© Bret Coomer 2015
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With Great Scott star Joyce DiDonato and members of Highland Park High School’s Highlander Band during Dallas Opera’s 2015–16 season preview
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015

The ascent of Jake Heggie is the stuff of opera lore: a middle-class kid from Ohio, classically trained in piano and composition, writes press releases for San Francisco Opera by day while writing art songs at night. One day he musters the courage to show his work to mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Her ecstatic reaction travels quickly, and soon the likes of Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw and Bryn Terfel seek out his songs. SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri names him composer-in-residence and introduces him to playwright Terrence McNally.

The result was Dead Man Walking, which has since racked up nearly fifty productions around the globe, an extraordinary feat in an industry in which second productions of new works are usually but a dream. The End of the Affair, Three Decembers and Moby-Dick followed. Great Scott, Heggie’s newest piece, will have its premiere at Dallas Opera in October. It’s a Wonderful Life is slated for Houston Grand Opera in 2016. Yet another is under wraps. In his spare time, Heggie accompanies famous friends in recital and mentors young composers.  

The tall, tousled, fifty-four-year-old composer is the Anti-Glick: his centrifugal charisma lures the finest collaborators with determination absent malevolence. He can schmooze glitterati in the lobby and cajole performers in the rehearsal room with equal élan, but he is no milquetoast. “I’ve never seen Jake do anything unkind or unpleasant,” says McNally, “but I’ve seen him get his way.” Conductor Patrick Summers, a longtime friend, says, “Jake is as tough as he can be. It’s never personal. It’s never negative. It’s not calculated. But don’t mistake that for not knowing exactly what he wants and never stopping until he achieves it.” 

There is courage in his music as well. “Not shying away from a melodic line is quite brave for a composer of twenty-first-century music,” says mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a frequent interpreter of his work. His lush, theatrical scores, free of the hyperintellectualism and irony that marked the genre for decades, have made him financially independent and have made the world a safer place for contemporary opera in precarious financial times. 

Heggie’s life is now a perpetual fugue of invention, collaboration and hard work, firmly grounded in San Francisco with a loving husband, Curt Branom; Branom’s nineteen-year-old son, Grayson, whom Heggie has co-parented since he was three; and their dog, Cody, an American Eskimo–Australian Shepherd mix. It is, Heggie says, with immense relief, “a boring life.”

We meet in a studio at the National Opera Center in New York on a bone-chilling winter day, but Heggie, in jeans and a pullover, exudes California sunshine. Tucked under his arm is the score to Great Scott, which he has kindly offered to preview. Before he tells the story of the opera, he tells the story of Jake Heggie, and as he does so the lavish encomiums that precede him — kind, warm, generous, funny, honest — are readily evident. But, as Auden wrote, “The roots of wit and charm tap secret springs of sorrow.” 

Heggie came from a peripatetic family, driven by a physician father, John Francis Heggie, who suffered from severe depression. “He moved jobs quite a bit, because it was very difficult to stay happy for any length of time in one place,” says the composer, who was born John Stephen Heggie in Florida and lived briefly in California before the family settled in Ohio. His father’s condition deteriorated, and, failing to respond to available treatments, he committed suicide. Heggie was ten.  

“It was like a bomb going off,” he says, “and there was emotional shrapnel everywhere.” His mother, on her own with four children, went to work full time as a nurse, enrolling in graduate school to boost her earnings. His two older sisters went the way of drugs and trouble; his little brother, he says, simply got “left behind.” Heggie, who had started piano lessons at seven, found refuge in music. “That is where I felt safe and secure, where I could express emotion,” he says. He purchased sheet music with proceeds from his paper route and remained the diligent son.

“He was either at school or working or taking music lessons,” says his mother, Judy, who eventually received her doctorate in nursing and, now retired, lives near her son in San Francisco. She takes no credit for his talent, which she attributes to his father, or for his ambition. “He raised himself,” she insists.

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In Dallas, at the sitzprobe of Moby-Dick in 2010
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015
 

A few years after his father’s death, the family moved to the Bay Area, where Heggie completed high school and honed his talents in piano and composition. (Coincidentally, his composition teacher, Ernst Bacon, had been Carlisle Floyd’s teacher thirty-four years earlier.) After two happy years at the American College in Paris, Heggie returned to California and enrolled at U.C.L.A., where he was selected to study with the distinguished pianist and composer Johana Harris.

“We hit it off the very first day,” he says. “There was an immediate bond. She was a magnificent teacher, a brilliant artist in every way, and she was nurturing and encouraging. She couldn’t stand naïve musicians. She wanted you to have a broad recognition of what the world had to offer in literature, music, art, food and daily life. She was all about unleashing inspiration, trusting instincts, opening up your heart and soul to possibility. And she saw something in me as an artist and as a composer that I didn’t see or recognize in myself.”

Harris developed romantic feelings that Heggie was unable to requite or thwart. His gay identity had just begun to emerge, but the realization was fraught with shame, and Harris offered refuge. “I didn’t want to be gay, and I resisted it with everything that I had,” he says. Confused and frightened, he accepted Harris’s proposal of marriage. He was twenty-one. She was sixty-nine. 

“I can look back now and say, ‘How could she have done that?’ It was taking advantage of a very naïve young man,” he says. “But at the same time I had great affection and admiration and love for her.” The reaction of their families (Harris, widow of composer Roy Harris, had five grown children), friends and colleagues was shock, but understanding and acceptance eventually emerged. Heggie completed his undergraduate degree in piano performance and composition, began graduate studies in composition and cultivated close friendships in the music community. He and Harris traveled widely and performed together often.

Ultimately, Harris accepted Heggie’s sexuality, but she refused to divorce him. Honoring his commitment, Heggie remained in the mariage blanc until, at age twenty-seven, he mustered the courage to move on. He lived with Harris on and off, settling on his own in San Francisco in 1993. They remained legally married until her death in 1995 at age eighty-two. 

He regrets having chosen to hide in a marriage, but he does not regret Harris’s legacy. “There isn’t a day that I am writing that I don’t think about something that she said to me. Her spirit is in every note I write.”

A night gallery of sadnesses accumulated over the years: the loss of friends to AIDS, a focal dystonia that temporarily curled his right hand, his sister Joanne’s sudden death from an aneurysm. Yet for the most part, he has not looked to his own life for stories to tell. For that, he relies on inspirational librettists, imaginative directors and exceptional singers. Though Great Scott is Heggie’s first full-length opera with McNally since Dead Man Walking,the playwright has remained mentor and muse through the past fifteen years. Three Decembers (originally titled Last Acts), written with Gene Scheer, was based on an unpublished play by McNally. Moby-Dick began as a Heggie–McNally collaboration, but, owing to health issues, McNally bowed out and Scheer stepped in. Scheer was also Heggie’s partner on the lyric dramas To Hell and Back and For a Look or a Touch and the song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. He is writing the libretto for It’s a Wonderful Life as well. 

Heggie remains loyal to the artists who have championed him, writing new works, flying in for major performances and accompanying them at home and abroad. They return the devotion in kind. In the 2014–15 season, Jamie Barton, Heidi Stober and DiDonato each performed Heggie works at Carnegie Hall recitals. His commissions in recent years have included songs for Kiri Te Kanawa and Nathan Gunn. Von Stade never leaves home without a Heggie song in her kit bag. His ears are open for commissions, but Heggie stays close to the San Francisco–Houston–Dallas axis. “I know them, they know me,” he says, lauding the unconditional support those companies have provided.  

Heggie confesses an aversion to the glaring eye of critics. He doesn’t read reviews — the specifics, he worries, will distract him — though his husband does offer the occasional précis. West of the Mississippi and in regional papers his work has been greeted more favorably, but East Coast critics have been harsh. In his review of Dead Man Walking, Bernard Holland of The New York Times called Heggie “a proficient flatterer” and suggested that he “turn his orchestration over to a professional.” Anthony Tommasini’s assessment of the Dead Man Walking score ranged from “professional and ardent” to “gurgling, animated, harmonically plaintive accompaniment patterns.” 

With Moby-Dick, the critical tide turned — even the Times praised the Dallas premiere — but there are still plenty of digs taken, at his popularity as much as his music. Carped Wall Street Journal critic Heidi Waleson of Moby-Dick, “Heggie and Scheer and their producers tamed this ferocious monster into a farm-raised fish suitable for the cautious palates of modern opera audiences.” The most common complaint among the wrecking crew is the derivative nature of his thematic materials. He is alternately chastised for borrowing from Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Debussy, Gershwin, Glass, Puccini and John Williams. 

There is some validity to the critical response. All great artists steal, consciously or not, but in Heggie’s scores, even if you can’t name that Stravinsky tune, certain musical familiarities too often pull focus from the emotional experience. Showy solos, clearly written for divas, similarly interrupt the narrative, as do instrumental blasts that intrude on the afterglow of intimate vocal ensembles. Heggie’s tonal grip can be powerful to a fault: now and then the ear becomes nostalgic for an ethereal chromatic break.

Where Heggie’s operas succeed, however, is where his peers so often fail: from prelude to curtain, he draws you to the edge of your seat with a theater artist’s deft hand. Primary colors of love, death and valor shine bright, but they are well-blended with subtle shades of morality and compassion. In true operatic tradition, he builds suspense through a wordless fusion of music and character. When Starbuck, poised to shoot the sleeping Ahab, puts down the musket, the underscore is the color of conscience. When Ahab seems to acquiesce to Starbuck’s wish to return to Nantucket, then reneges, you can hear the moral compass turn. Heggie’s music imbues narrative with the very essence of theatrical magic: even the inevitable is unexpected.

“Accessible” is a word often used with regard to Heggie’s scores, implying that opera audiences are so musically disabled they need a ramp to appreciation. Young operagoers may lack the music education once embedded in public schools, but the prime demographic of opera audiences today (all too often judged by the color of their hair rather than the content of their culture) derives from an era of solid musical literacy. Add passion to knowledge to ample disposable income, plus world-class creative and performing artists, and you’d be hard-pressed to prove a confederacy of dunces capable of filling a house of fools. 

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At the workshop for Great Scott in San Francisco, with director Jack O’Brien; Dallas Opera’s principal guest conductor, Nicole Paiement; librettist Terrence McNally; and Dallas Opera general director & CEO Keith Cerny
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015
 

Heggie is unafraid of risk, and Great Scott is a high-wire act — an original libretto sprung from Terrence McNally’s mind, with no myth, play, poem, novel or film from which to draw plot or character. In it, a great opera star, Arden Scott, returns to her hometown with an obscure bel canto work, to be performed by the local company, American Opera, on the very night that the town’s football team, the Grizzlies, is playing in the Super Bowl. Winnie Flato, the company’s patron and Arden’s childhood mentor, is married to the football team’s owner, whose financial state is precarious. If the Grizzlies lose, American Opera will close. 

As Heggie, at the piano, launches into the score, his broad compositional vocabulary and McNally’s clockwork libretto are immediately manifest — the plaintive song of a Rossini-esque maiden, the mayhem of a twenty-first-century opera rehearsal, the “Go! Go! Go!” of the Grizzlies’s fight song, an errant cell phone, and a burlesque between dueling sopranos who find twenty-six reasons, from Aida in Anchorage to Zamira in Zanzibar, why they can’t find a date for lunch.

The libretto is ripe with McNally’s trademark wit, but this is no buffa. Like his plays and musical-theater librettos, it is a serious work with tremendous heart. Arden is at an inflection point in her career, eager to go beyond “famous” and become someone who inspires others, as Winnie did for her. Heggie, singing sotto voce as Arden, draws a rapturous moment from the piano:

I want what I do — what we all do — To reach someone. Even one person.
I want to transform one life
the way you transformed mine.
 

A determined journalist attempts, and fails, to hold back tears.

“It’s okay,” Heggie says. “I cried when I wrote it.”

But, he hastens to add, the poetry is McNally’s: “He wrote this. He felt this too. And that is his brilliance — he writes things that are universal and specific at the same time.”

I meet with McNally two weeks later at his apartment off Washington Square, and as I read aloud the lines that so moved me, the normally stoic playwright begins to weep, first for the memory of Mrs. McElroy, “a wonderful high-school teacher who showed me there was more to life,” and then for the disastrous state of arts education today. “I just think the arts are so important,” he says, “and children are not getting enough in school.” Great Scott has allowed him to celebrate the glory of opera’s past while addressing the place of the art form in contemporary society. 

McNally acknowledges that with an original libretto, unlike with a prototypical story (nun, prisoner, death row), he is asking the audience “to take in a lot of information very quickly, and to meet people they’ve never engaged with before.” Joyce DiDonato originates the title role of Arden, and she must breathe life into a character who is a woman, an actress and a supreme bel cantoartist. An artful bit of typecasting, perhaps, but still a challenge. “As long as I delve deeply into the words and sing Jake’s music as written, I know that it will come to life in a very meaningful way,” she says. “A beautiful luxury is that I have the opportunity to ask the composer and librettist questions directly, so any doubts I find, or if there are dramatic uncertainties that come up, I can go directly to the source.” Von Stade costars as Arden’s mentor, Winnie. Semiretired at seventy, von Stade says, “I love going out there when I’m asked, and I am just thrilled Jake asked me. I would have said yes if it was a walk-on.”

For Jake Heggie, Judy Heggie provided stability, Johana Harris offered inspiration, and von Stade hit the launch button. Other totems include Carlisle Floyd, whom he considers a “hero and mentor”; Stephen Sondheim, to whom the score of Moby-Dick is dedicated; and, of course, his husband, Curt, who brings him love, peace and food. (“He likes to cook. I like to eat,” says Heggie.) 

In a recent essay, Heggie wrote that in difficult times he hoped “some amazing hero would show up and save me.” Indeed, as a teenager he dedicated a set of études to the actor Christopher Reeve and summoned the courage to ring Superman’s bell and deliver them in person. But Heggie no longer needs saving; opera has come to his rescue. And now, with Great Scott, he returns the favor: if the Grizzlies win, and American Opera, fictional and otherwise, survives, we can thank Jake Heggie, that mild-mannered man of steel. spacer 

MATTHEW SIGMAN is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP­–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre, The Voice and Symphony. 

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