Jake Heggie explains it all for you

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Jake Heggie is kind of a big deal. If his own story were made into an opera, it would be laughed off as contrived and unbelievable (even more so than most opera plots). A working stiff writing copy in the PR department of a national opera gets noticed by the right people and is launched to superstardom (by opera standards) by a series of highly successful commissions. But amazingly this story is true. From his first commission, Dead Man Walking, and to his recent triumph with Moby Dick, Heggie is one of a handful of living composers who actually get to see their operas produced multiple times.

Last night the San Francisco Opera hosted an interactive workshop with Jake Heggie as part of their Adult Education program. The stated goal of the workshop was to explore the evolution of new opera, focusing on the adaptation of existing works. About 100 people showed up in the chorus room of the War Memorial Opera House, very few of them under 55, and by my (admittedly superficial and prejudiced) estimation, almost none of those present were going to be actively involved in creating new opera any time soon (with the possible exception of writing checks). As someone more interested in a master class than a general introduction to challenges of adaptation, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

But both Mr. Heggie and Kip Cranna (Director of Music Administration) proved to be congenial and enjoyable hosts. They began by comparing scenes from the operas Streetcar Named Desire and Dead Man Walking with the corresponding scenes in the films to illustrate the challenges in adapting a script to a libretto.

For Dead Man Walking they showed the climactic confession scene. I was struck by how much more moving I found the film version than the opera scene. Penn’s performance in that scene felt so genuine, so honest, that I immediately empathized with him. His understated “Yes Ma’am”s were nothing short of gut wrenching. The opera, on the other hand, didn’t have that immediacy or honesty. Singing is artificial, distancing.

In truth though, this was a very unfair comparison. When projected on a screen, a clip of an opera is going to have a hard time competing with a clip of a film. Projection the film’s home turf. Opera isn’t designed to be flattened on a screen. More importantly an opera needs to develop it’s theatrical world over time, sucking you in, getting you acclimated to a world where things are sung. Naturalistic film takes very little time to adjust to. You know what to expect, you know what you’re watching. So in comparing these excerpts, Heggie’s opera has both hands tied behind it’s back. I haven’t seen it produced, but everyone I’ve spoken to has assured me that the opera packs a very effective wallop.

The other comparison, the ape speech in Andre Previn’s adaptation of Streetcar Named Desire, had a reversal that wasn’t discussed (and I’m not certain was intentional). In the film version, Blanche speaks in a heightened language as she badmouths Stella’s beau as common, subhuman. She evokes art and culture with a poetic command of the language alien to every other character in the film. She still imagines that her upbringing on the plantation matters at all. Stella, on the other hand, is rooted to the earth, responding plainly, when she responds at all. Her language is anything but poetic.

In the opera, this ends up bizarrely reversed. In this aria, partially due to the constraints of the libretto, Blanche comes off as much more matter of fact, abrupt. She’s the realist trying to show Stella the brute that Stanley is. Meanwhile, Stella responds with a cooing melismatic line, still in Stanley’s masculine thrall. She’s the one floating in the clouds.

The remainder of the evening was spent on the ‘interactive’ portion of the event. The attendees were given the first section of Terrence McNally’s Some Christmas Letters, the source material for Heggie’s Three Decembers, and told to envision how they would adapt the work for stage.

McNally’s original work is in three parts, each consisting of three separate letters (or phone calls) from the estranged members of a family in dissolution. The beauty of the original is how each letter recontextualizes the one before it, seemingly innocent asides or assertions are revealed to be major slights, apparent non sequitors end up revealing deep character flaws.

Heggie and his team took considerable license with the structure of the work when adapting it. It was perhaps unavoidable, but I can’t help but feel that that element of recontextualization was lost. But this is adaptation, a new beast is being created, and what works on the page could well be death on the stage. The new libretto added scenes and interactions (and entire plot points) that were nowhere to be found in the source, but were understandably necessary to create dramatic activity and variety from what would otherwise be a series of monologues. The piece received middling notices when it was premiered a couple of years ago, but based upon the excerpts played and ensuing conversation it sounds like a second listen is warranted.

At the conclusion of the evening, Mr. Heggie was very generous with his time, sticking around as a group of attendees (myself included) clustered around him with follow up questions. Who were his musical influences? (Everyone he’s ever heard.) Where can people go to develop smaller operas? (It’s hard, but Opera America is a good place to look.) What advice does he have for composers? (Network, write a lot, get it on stage, jobs almost always come from a personal connection).

And then Heggie was off to the Houston Grand Opera to attend the last couple of performances of their production of Dead Man Walking. See kids, dreams can come true. And at least in this case, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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