SAN FRANCISCO – Is opera grasping at straws to find new subjects? It may appear that metempsychosis, which infuses the latest staged work by Jake Heggie, is a case in point, but not so fast. His If I Were You, which had its world premiere in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on August 1 and 3 (with two different casts), tells the story of the transfer of souls, with rebirths and empty shells left over, all to the pleasure of the Devil.
But except for the number of soul-jumpings and preoccupation with details of the transmigration, little of this is new in the wake of Faust/Mefistophele operas and innumerable films, ranging from the Hollywood classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan to adventurous or spiritual reincarnation stories to ludicrous zombie apocalypses and at least two dozen body-swap tales. In literature, Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads is in a class of its own.
Gene Scheer’s libretto is a loose adaptation of a rather obscure book, French-American author Julien Green’s 1947 Si j’étais vous, written in French. But the story and libretto take a back seat to other aspects of the opera.
First and foremost are Heggie’s captivating music, the unique occasion of this San Francisco Opera production, and the outstanding vocal-orchestral performances at the Aug. 1 premiere. Similar to Berlioz’s idée fixe, something between a theme or leitmotif (and yet neither), Heggie’s score opens with an elusive, beguiling passage in the orchestra that returns repeatedly during the work’s two-hour length, often in a variation. Different as If I Were You is from Heggie’s magnum opuses – Moby-Dick and Dead Man Walking – it is fully on par with them, especially as heard at the premiere in the preparation and conducting by Nicole Paiement, a prominent interpreter of contemporary music.
Keturah Stickann’s fluid staging and Liliana Duque Piñeiro’s striking scenic design work well on Herbst’s historic and minuscule stage; the excellent 32-piece orchestra was squeezed in between the stage and audience. A remaining puzzle for this uncertain observer is whether the gauzy material exchanged at times of soul transfers represents discarded bodies or the surviving essence of the exchanger or exchangee.
A unique aspect of the creation of If I Were You is its commission and production by San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, the country’s oldest major opera training platform for young artists, as the highlight of the organization’s 62nd season. The purpose of this rare, difficult, and costly enterprise is to provide young singers with the opportunity to star in a new full-length opera by a major composer, and, as San Francisco Opera’s general director emeritus David Gockley says: “Creating a new role in a world premiere opera is an invaluable growth experience for a young artist…because a singer is faced with creating his or her vocal and dramatic portrayal from scratch.”
That mission was accomplished already with the (chronologically) first of two casts on Aug. 1 as Cara Collins (Brittomara), Michael Day (Fabian), Esther Tonea (Diana), and Patricia Westley (Selena) “created vocal and dramatic portrayals” splendidly, outstanding both in individual performances and participation in what is essentially a true ensemble opera.
Collins, a mezzo-soprano from Amarillo, Texas, easily conquers the principal role of the Devil in the guise of Brittomara (the gender change from the original story was mandated by Heggie). A shapeshifter herself, at times she blasted her victims with sounds of the Underworld and then switched to sweet and seductive tones.
Tenor Day, from Rockford, Ill., fought and met well the unenviable challenge of playing the sort-of-hero Fabian, whose kvetching about his pointless life attracts the attention of the Devil. While in his interactions Fabian is consistently putz-like, Heggie’s music for him has elements of heldentenor flavor, and it is especially here that Day excels, within the main range of a lyric – but strong – tenor.
Soprano Tonea, from Buford, Ga., has the most interesting, if baffling, dramatic role in the opera: that of Diana, whose inexplicable love for Fabian takes her to the edge of Wagnerian-like redemption. In addition to dramatic excellence, Tonea impressed with the flexibility and beauty of her singing. (Devil/Brittomara missed an obvious come-on, neglecting Diana’s “I am living at home with my parents. I’d sell my immortal soul to get out of there.”)
In yet another accomplishment of creating something out of almost nothing, soprano Westley, from Santa Barbara, Calif., made the bland character of Selena come alive, conquering also with a rich, beautifully modulated voice. The role’s only function is to serve as the friend and sounding board of the heroine (Diana), a youthful version of the typical operatic duenna.
As to Julien Green, an obituary for the writer, who died in 1998 at age 98, spoke of his “divided personality; in which sexual exaltation fought with almost sinister chasteness…He had a kind of puritan dislike of physical contact [such that] he even would go so far as to refuse to sit on a chair that another man had been sitting on, as the lingering warmth of a human body filled him with revulsion.” The virtually non-stop shedding of bodies in If I Were You reflects that peculiarity.
The Heggie-Scheer version of Green’s work posits that “as the shy Fabian becomes a wealthy older man, a young handsome brute, and eventually a young woman, the opera will deal with issues of age, power, sexual politics, and gender identity that are both timeless and very much part of the contemporary zeitgeist.”
That ambitious promise is not met in the drama, but Heggie’s music and his tailoring the work to a company of young artists assures the future of If I Were You by opera companies big and small, perhaps especially on campuses and at music schools.
Janos Gereben, whose career ranged from the NY Herald-Tribune to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, joined San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV.org) when it was founded by Robert and Mary Commanday in 1998. He also writes about music and art for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.