Opera is here to stay, says 'Dead Man Walking' composer Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie's 'Dead Man Walking' heads to the Broad, marking the composer's first full-length opera in L.A.

Don't tell Jake Heggie that opera is a dying art form.

The composer of the opera "Dead Man Walking" thinks it's alive and kicking — he even uses an unprintable term to describe a recent batch of articles declaring that "Opera is dead." And while his passionate words in defense of the operatic form are convincing, the trajectory of his own career is perhaps his best argument.

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FOR THE RECORD

Jake Heggie: In the March 1 Arts & Books section, an article about composer Jake Heggie said that his opera "Moby-Dick" premiered in Dallas in 2000. It premiered in 2010.

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Two weeks ago, Heggie's first opera, based on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 book (and Tim Robbins' Oscar-winning film adaptation), returned to San Francisco for the first time since its 2000 world premiere in a new production by Opera Parallèle.

History tells us that few new operas ever get a second production, but Heggie's work is that rare exception. A hit from the start — San Francisco Opera had to add two performances to the initial run to satisfy audience demand — Heggie's opera has since been seen in more than 40 productions worldwide. Last weekend alone, the opera was performed in Dayton, Ohio, and at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.

Next weekend, the Opera Parallèle production comes to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, marking the first time "Dead Man Walking" — or any full-length opera by Heggie — will be performed in Los Angeles, where the composer lived and studied in the 1980s and early '90s.

"I'm thrilled it's going to be at the Broad," says Heggie, who performed at the theater's opening night in 2008. "It's a great venue … and Dale Franzen [the Broad's outgoing director] is an old friend from my college days at UCLA. We have a long history, and she's been very devoted to my work."

Franzen says she knew Heggie composed music when they were grad students. "I was a singer, I sang his songs." She's been trying to find a way to bring one of his operas to the Broad for some time: "It's crazy that they've never been done in L.A."

"Dead Man Walking" arrives in town just weeks after Los Angeles Opera announced that Heggie's operatic take on Melville's "Moby-Dick" will make its L.A. premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the fall.

Oddly, given his success, Heggie's music has never been heard at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The composer, who now lives in San Francisco, shrugs it off, saying, "Oh, well, you know, I mean, there's so many composers in the world, and there's so much music being written that's out there. … I think part of it is I got pegged early on as a theater composer and an opera composer."

Heggie has written symphonic and chamber works, but the opera house is where Heggie has thrived. "The voice and storytelling," he says, clearly having thought about it. "They are the main things for me."

"Moby-Dick" is Heggie's fourth and most recent opera. It premiered to mostly positive reviews in Dallas in 2000, and it will open at the Chandler Pavilion in October shortly after he premieres a new opera in Dallas. This work, which he is finishing now and orchestrating over the summer, is titled "Great Scott." It's not based on a book, play or film. The opera, with a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally, is about the intersection of football and opera in America.

"Great Scott" opens Oct. 30 in Dallas, "Moby-Dick" opens Oct. 31 in Los Angeles. "This is a very high-class problem for a composer to have," Heggie says with a laugh. "And I gratefully accept." In 2016, Heggie will premiere an opera in Houston based on Frank Capra's film "It's a Wonderful Life."

When asked how he can write two operas in two years, he says: "I kinda work all the time. I love it, it's what I do. I don't have a full-time job, this is my work." Though he adds: "I can't write two different pieces at exactly the same time. It just doesn't work for me. It's like multitasking, and we know that doesn't really exist."

Despite his work at major American opera houses, Heggie insists that much of what inspires him today is happening at smaller opera companies.

"I'm really impressed with this company, Opera Parallèle," he said. "They are part of an amazing wave that's sweeping across the country right now — opera at this level is so vital."

Indeed, the landscape of Southern California opera is changing. Los Angeles Opera offers fewer new productions, Long Beach Opera co-produces with a Chicago troupe, and Opera Pacific, which staged the SoCal premiere of "Dead Man Walking" in 2004, went bankrupt seven years ago. But there are also emerging opera companies like the Industry and Four Larks.

Heggie says that changes at big opera companies, from New York to San Diego, are a necessary part of opera's vitality. "When I'm at a big company, when I'm talking to a board, or with a group of donors and they say, 'Oh, but what's the future of opera going to be? It's changing so much.' And I think, we don't do it the same way we did it a hundred years ago, and it's going to look completely different in a hundred years, but it will exist," Heggie says emphatically. "It's an extremely flexible form."

One main reason Heggie insists opera is flourishing is audiences want something new: "There are more new operas being written now than ever before in this country. Fifteen years ago, when 'Dead Man Walking' premiered, it was one of maybe half a dozen new operas that year, now I feel like there's a new one every other week."

The numbers suggest he's right. Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, says: "Companies across the country, large and small, are doing new work than ever before … producing American work — world premieres or second productions — has become the norm. And this has really solidified over the last 10 years."

The scaled-back Opera Parallèle version of "Dead Man Walking," which uses 31 instruments, down from the original score's 75, is so different from the original production, Heggie says, "It isn't just a repeat, it's coming back in brand new clothes … you can see that it's a piece that has many different things to say and different ways to present them."

"The drama, which was created for a 3,000-seat opera house, you are getting in the Broad, a 500-seat house," he says. "And the immediacy and the visceral quality of it is so overwhelming when you're in a proximity like that, you feel the vibration of the voices, you don't just hear them, you feel them."

Watching his first opera at a distance of 15 years, Heggie says he wonders, "How did I have the nerve to do this?"

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