Heggie’s Opera Bounty And Diversity Mirrored In Swell Of Productions

Ryan McKinny as Joseph De Rocher and Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s ‘Dead Man Walking’ at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

PERSPECTIVE — “Be yourself” reads the sign-off on Jake Heggie’s emails, “everyone else is already taken.” As one who lives by this advice from Oscar Wilde, Heggie is a hard man to pigeonhole. Consider, just for fun, his scintillating keyboard fantasia I’m Excited. No You’re Not, part Bach, part Debussy, spun from A Little Night Music for Anthony de Mare’s 37-track, 37-composer triple CD Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano (2015). And on Sept. 29, there’s the New York Philharmonic premiere of The Elements to look forward to — a symphonic omnibus for the star fiddler Joshua Bell, with Heggie responsible for “Fire,” complementing the “Earth” of Kevin Puts, “Water” of Edgar Meyer, “Air” of Jennifer Higdon, and “Space” of Jessie Montgomery.

But while Heggie’s catalog runs the gamut, his name is most closely associated with vocal genres. His art songs, which number 300, give or take, have been championed from his early days by Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and a cavalcade of singers who came after. And then there are his operas.

Jake Heggie rehearsing with Joyce DiDonato for the Dallas Opera world premiere of ‘Great Scott’ in 2015 (Photo by Karen Almond)

For the Heggie who writes for the lyric stage, the planets have aligned as never before. On Sept. 26, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut with his firstling, the international hit Dead Man Walking, adapted — with librettist Terrence McNally — from Sister Helen Prejean’s best-selling memoir of her work as a spiritual counselor to killers on Death Row. Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny head the cast; Ivo van Hove directs; Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the conductor.

And for an encore, there’s the Civil War spy thriller Intelligence, opening the Houston Grand Opera season on Oct. 20; it is Heggie’s fourth commission from that important company (for a chronology, see box). The cherry on the cake: a Met premiere for Heggie’s well-traveled maximum opus Moby-Dick, dates to be announced. Scroll down for impressions from the big night at the Met on Sept. 26. But first, this seems the moment to get a fix on Heggie’s operatic achievement as a whole — as best one can.

“Do or do not,” Yoda interjects from a galaxy far, far way. “There is no try.” Here on Planet Gaia, that’s not so true. Who, apart from the composer, has seen all his operas in the theater? Multimedia, when available, often preserve preliminary versions of the scores that have been superseded. Dead Man Walking is documented on live recordings of both the San Francisco premiere (2000), starring Susan Graham, and the Houston production of 2012, starring DiDonato, and there’s video coming Oct. 21 on The Met: Live in HD. The cornerstone of the Heggie videography is the original production of Moby-Dick as revived in San Francisco in 2013, broadcast nationally on the PBS Series, “Great Performances” and available on streaming platforms as well as DVD.

Surveying the Heggie canon in anticipation of the premieres in New York and Houston, one thing that struck me was the range of Heggie’s subjects. His first Houston commission, The End of the Affair, after Graham Greene’s mystically tinged novel of adultery and atonement, evoked World War II in sounds of church chimes and air-raid sirens. His second, Three Decembers, took a hard look at a self-centered Broadway star and the children she short-changed for the sake of her career. To Hell and Back, written for the improbable but terrific duo of Patti LuPone and Isabel Bayrakdarian, revives the myth of Ceres and Persephone. Two Remain draws on diaries and poetry written by Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

If I Were You, based on a French novel by Julien Green, the first non-French national elected to the Académie Française, centers on a depressed young writer whose soul migrates from body to body. Heggie calls it a latter-day Faust scenario (there’s a bargain with the devil); I don’t see that, but the potential for leitmotivic development seems positively Sondheimesque. (Heggie is a huge Sondheim fan. Sondheim, for his part, was no fan of opera. What, if anything, he knew or thought of Heggie’s work is unrecorded. He did, however, give Heggie permission to dedicate the score of Moby-Dick to him.) Written for a student cast, If I Were You received its premiere at the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program and went on to performances at Northwestern University and Boston University. If you failed to catch it in those places, as I did, you might have a long wait for your next chance.

A scene from the 2010 world-premiere Dallas Opera production of ‘Moby-Dick’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

“An opera is a tremendous undertaking,” Heggie wrote in a recent electronic Q&A on his work and process, “so it’s crucial to choose projects that I not only feel I can do but must do. The fact that If I Were You was written for the Merola program was what drove the choice of story in the first place. It’s a story about young people — and it made sense for young artists to inhabit and tell it. I’m incredibly proud of the piece, but until there’s a recording it’s not likely to travel far and wide … a recording is a calling card for a new work — it means it exists. But it’s very expensive to put together a recording of an opera! So, it will have to wait!”

Does he lose sleep over that?

“Not at all. I just try to keep writing. Opera is not easy — there’s no secret formula. You write for the premiere and then hope for the best after that because it’s definitely out of my hands.”

Range of subject matter duly noted, what fascinated me even more about Heggie’s operas as a body of work was more of an absence than a presence. What has driven landmark operas of the last half-century — Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, John Adams’ Nixon in China, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence, and comparable international hits — is neither character nor subject matter. It’s style — style understood as the composer’s unique compositional “voice,” as omnipresent as in a symphony.

Heggie, who characterizes his music as lyrical, has no voice at all in this sense. His voice is many voices. He’s an imaginative orchestrator, as inventive with a chamber combo as he is with a pit full of instruments. Apart from the regulation operatic arias, duets, ensembles, and intermezzi, he has at his fingertips whatever specialties a score may require: the odd pop ballad, or hotdog dance number, or heartsick sea shanty.

A scene from the 2016 Houston Grand Opera production of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

“It’s all part of who I am as a composer,” says Heggie, a musical magpie who started writing music “in single digits,” started writing songs down in his preteens, studied composition privately and then at UCLA beginning in his teens. “It’s all in service of telling the story. It can never be gratuitous. Everything is in service of telling the story — the story, the story. I never think, ‘Oh I’ll emulate Bernstein here—or Debussy there…’ No! Those influences emerge organically.” For the record, he still writes the old-fashioned way: on paper.

But in other respects, Heggie is very much a creature of our moment. As a friend and associate of Heggie’s for going on three decades, and the first conductor of all major works through If I Were You, Patrick Summers sees deeper into Heggie’s Janus-like art than most.

“With European Modernism being the lodestar of opera and classical music for so long, no matter what audiences had to say on the subject,” Summers said recently, “Jake has brought a fresh audience-pleasing and accessible perspective to opera. Jake’s operas, while dramatically complex and musically challenging, have also managed to welcome a 21st-century audience. His set of gifts is very rare. I cannot imagine my career without his. His music spoke to me deeply from the moment I first heard it. To have been so involved in the genesis of his operas — including Intelligence, which Kwamé Ryan will conduct — has given me a vantage point on all music. Jake is my musical brother. He’s a natural teacher, a gentle and commanding giant, a moral force against the dangerous cynicism that pervades our fragile industry.”

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Joyce DiDonato, and Frederica von Stade in ‘Great Scott’ at Dallas Opera in 2015 (Photo by Karen Almond)

For me, what defines a Heggie opera in the end is its sound world, uniquely structured for the destinies of the characters who will clash there; call it cinematography in music. The textbook example would be Dead Man Walking, with its homespun hymns in transparent counterpoint to the claustrophobic pandemonium of the prison. Another example would be It’s a Wonderful Life, its action split between the woozy limbo just outside the Pearly Gates and the dark, satanic mills of Bedford Falls, where George Bailey puts up his heroic fight against the forces of greed and his own despair. Moby-Dick is, in a sense, simpler yet more mysterious, embracing its contradictions within one vast musical ocean. The never-revived Great Scott, an operatic All About Eve or latter-day Ariadne auf Naxos (take your pick), was a Rube Goldberg machine, linking football chants, Sousa-style marches, and cataracts of faux neo bel canto.

“Finding the sound world for the opera at the beginning,” Heggie writes. “That’s the most challenging part. Where does all of this take place? What’s the harmonic world, the rhythmic and lyrical world where the characters exist? What drives it all forward? Once that mystery unfolds, the rest starts to come quickly — because there’s a place for all of it to emerge. It’s one of the reasons I choose such vastly different stories and settings — to jar my imagination and force me to consider different perspectives.”

Raehann Bryce-Davis in ‘Three Decembers’ at Opera Maine (Photo by Martha Mickles)

Dead Man Walking premiered when Heggie was 39, an age at which, as he has pointed out, Mozart had been dead for four years. Well, his late-blooming maiden effort has proved to have very long legs. Since San Francisco, Dead Man Walking has surfaced as far afield as in Copenhagen, Sydney, Cape Town, Budapest, and at London’s blue-ribbon Guildhall School of Music & Drama — better than 70 productions to date. And now, ta da!, the Met! 

However tardily, America’s premier opera company did the work and its creators proud at the opening on Sept. 26. As previously noted, Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny led the cast, she as the nun who signs on as his spiritual adviser as his execution approaches and he as the convicted killer Joseph de Rocher (the name is made up). The path ahead — at first, failed appeals for pardon, then a quest for truth — will be an ordeal for both. Sister Helen, who hates the crime but comes to love the criminal as an errant child of God, searches her own soul as unsparingly as she pushes Joe to search his. 

By now, Sister Helen can hold few secrets for DiDonato. This, after all, was the vehicle for the self-styled Yankee Diva’s New York City Opera debut in the work’s local premiere in 2002 – and she has revisited it since in Houston and Madrid. You might worry at this late date that by now her interpretation had hardened into routine, but that’s not the case at all. DiDonato traces Heggie’s music in tones of limpid purity, phrasing with an ingenuousness that scorns effect even as it strikes to the heart of her character’s hard-won radical empathy. Clear through the still a cappella ending, the radiance burns true.

As Joe, McKinny is her equal. At the opera’s beginning, Joe summons Sister Helen — until now a pen pal — to Death Row as his spiritual adviser. But no sooner has she arrived than he starts pushing her away, consumed with guilt he masks behind lies and denial. Late in the game, in a rare moment of frank self-pity, Joe describes himself as a scrawny little fellow — a line at odds with McKinny’s powerful physique (and you should see his pushups). Bluster and impotent rage dominate much of the role, and McKinny gives these full value. But in fleeting moments of tenderness, he also reveals the orphaned soul of Joe’s inner child, to heart-breaking effect.

A third standout performance comes from Susan Graham, the Sister Helen of the San Francisco premiere in 2000, now graduated to Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, Joe’s downtrodden mother, originally played by an uncharacteristically woebegone Frederica von Stade. A jubilant Latonia Moore seizes her moments as the wise yet practical Sister Rose. Justin Austin scores a bull’s-eye in the cameo of a traffic cop. In a stroke of luxury casting, Rod Gilfry plays Owen Hart, the father of one of Joe’s victims.

Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen and Susan Graham as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher in the Met production of ‘Dead Man Walking.’ Graham originated the role of Sister Helen with San Francisco Opera in 2000. (Photo by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

In the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séguin regales listeners with a cohesive reading of Heggie’s intricately constructed score, pointing up thematic links between moments of plaintive longing and explosions of despair. And he does an expert job shaping the drama in contrasts of texture as arias for solo woodwinds give way to tense, marcato choral episodes. The orchestra and the choruses of children and adults are in their glory.

And Ivo van Hove’s production? It’s OK in its grim, colorless, industrial way. The set is a gray box with some inset doors, overhung by a hollow cube that serves off and on as a screen for live projections (designed by Christopher Ash) captured by a roaming camera crew. A lengthy sequence in Act 2 juxtaposes giant blowups of DiDonato and McKinny’s faces, hers aglow under a golden gel, his all but ashen. It’s an arresting moment, but it pulls focus. Luckily, the performers can bear the scrutiny; to their credit, they don’t overact.

Other video — prerecorded forests, country roads, barroom scenes, the murder at the top of the show — is in a drab, smeary, oh-so-arty style that in 2023 looks like the flavor-of-a-month long past. As complaints about directorial overreach go, this one’s a bagatelle. All things considered, we’re talking about a triumph, confirmed by the roars of a glittery crowd for everyone on the jam-packed stage, from child choristers to principals to production team to composer and finally Sister Helen herself. 

Next month in Houston: Intelligence, per Patrick Summers “one of the most important operas of our era.” Let’s see.