Friday February 23, 2018 10:32 pm



Jake Heggie photo
A few weeks after the grand opening concert celebration of Opera Colorado’s new home in September 2005, the ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE in Denver, FanFaire interviewed JAKE HEGGIE about “At the Statue of Venus“, the 20-minute commissioned piece he wrote for the occasion (streamed below with the requisite permissions). The conversation inevitably segued into an interesting discussion of the art of song-writing and composing opera – the HEGGIE WAY.


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"I write just from my gut."

[/pullquote] Impressed by how well the piece connected with the Denver audience, we asked him if there is such a thing as a "Heggie style." He paused hesitatingly, "A Heggie style... ummm...." and, as if reflecting for a bit, continued: "You know, I don't know. I'm the wrong person to ask. Because I write just from my gut. I know that it's always lyrical and tonally based - and that there are elements of jazz, as well as opera and classical influences. But it's a real sort of eclectic mix of influences. But I don't know. People tell me they can tell it's my music now. But I have a hard time..."

What is certain is that JAKE HEGGIE has a magical way of wedding words to music and it never fails to strike a special note with audiences - as it did in Denver and in San Francisco in 2000 where he premiered his first opera DEAD MAN WALKING. The most successful contemporary opera in decades, it transformed HEGGIE from an unknown song-writer to possibly an opera composer of which legends are made. Indeed, today DEAD MAN WALKING is securely on its way to becoming part of the standard repertoire, having already seen numerous reincarnations nationwide since its premiere. His second opera, THE END OF THE AFFAIR , which premiered in Houston in 2004 was reprised twice in 2005 in other cities.

JAKE HEGGIE was a prolific song writer (still is!) who had set some 200 poems and literary pieces to music by the time he composed his first opera at age 39. Perhaps it is his passion for and mastery of the vocal line, acquired since he started composing at age 11, that prepared the stage for his phenomenal success in opera. But then that has not historically always been the case - the great 19th century composer FRANZ SCHUBERT who is considered the father of the German art song (Lied), did not succeed as an opera composer.


We can thank famed mezzo-soprano FREDERICA VON STADE ("Flicka" to her friends) for "discovering" HEGGIE and bringing him to the attention of America's opera stars, who now are among his most enthusiastic fans and collaborators. But "Flicka"remains HEGGIE's most ardent champion. Often in recital together, she sings his songs and has commissioned quite a few of them herself. LISTEN to a clip ("Paper Wings" - Track 8), excerpted from the CD "THE FACES OF LOVE".

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"Oh, gosh! When I first started working at SAN FRANCISCO OPERA, she was doing DANGEROUS LIAISONS, and I was brand new in the PR Department. She's so generous and kind, you know. She just befriended me - it had nothing to do with music or composition. She had no idea I was a musician because I still hadn't got back into playing. Nobody in San Francisco knew meas a musician then. But I heard her sing in these rehearsals, and I just thought I had to write something for her, just to thank her for being so generous and kind. So I wrote some folk song arrangements and gave them to her. That's when it all started. And we've just become very close friends. She has championed so much of my work. I've been very lucky. I also work really hard, but I've been very lucky."

That was in the early '90s when HEGGIE, unable to make a living in music as a composer or pianist, partly because of a temporary physical disability, moved to San Francisco, landing a job with San Francisco Opera.

"I went through something terrible in my late twenties. I lost the use of my right hand - it was a thing called focal dystonia. It affected the muscular tissue, and my right hand would clump up into a ball. It was very depressing. And then I went through what is known as re-education therapy and I started being able to play again in '92. That was five years! But yes, I was very lucky."


Lucky, indeed. In other words, destiny. He began taking piano lessons "from the time I was 5 or 6, and then started writing when I was 11. But you know... I feel very lucky that I always knew music was what I wanted to do. And I think kids are so lucky when they find a passion early on. But during that time I always wanted to be a pianist. First and foremost, that was what wanted to be."But not much later, he discovered the joy of song-writing: "I guess I knew by the time I was about 14 or 15... I was really passionate about it by then. There was vocal music all around me as I was growing up. I guess it was a very natural thing for me. I started off writing these big piano pieces. But then in my teens I just found that I had this affinity for setting words. And so I was writing my own words--very Broadway-type songs. And then I started taking lessons with a man named ERNST BACON, who was a great American song-writer. And he introduced me to EMILY DICKINSON and the art of poetry. That was in California when I was 16, and from then on I think I was very interested in setting poetry and song-writing."

Thus began HEGGIE's journey to becoming master of the vocal line: "I grew up in Ohio until I was about 16, and then my whole family moved to California. I spent 2 years in Europe after high school. I studied, I took piano lessons and just wrote music on my own. And I travelled a lot. But other than that I've been in California. I was in Paris for 2 years, then moved to LA to go to UCLA and stayed there until '93. And then I've been up here in San Francisco since '93."

But his formal music education wasn't typical: "Oh, no. When I went to UCLA I studied with an amazing musician named JOHANA HARRIS. And she was not just a piano teacher, she was a composition teacher as well. So, I was at a music school, but I wouldn't say it was standard conservatory training. It was not as intensive on the performances, although I tried to get a balanced picture." And he continued to find inspiration in poetry: "Oh, I love it. I love the written word. I found it... Again, it was this teacher ERNST BACON who awakened that. And then JOHANA HARRIS adored poetry. And we just would sit and go through poetry books and share poems. And ever since then I've sort of been ravenous about it. I always have one or two books going and I love to spend time looking through poems and see if something's going to inspire me."


POULENC once wrote: "The musical setting of a poem should be an act of love. Never a marriage of convenience." Which, given what we now know about JAKE HEGGIE, is perhaps the most apt description of song-writing, the Heggie way. "Oh, that's absolutely true. No, I can't set a poem if I don't love it. That's why if people commission me I feel I should choose the poem."

And then HEGGIE, song-writer/poetry-lover immerses himself in the text: "I let it sit there for as long as it needs to. And then suddenly I go back to it and you know, there's a musical response. I can never tell the timing of it - sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes it takes a really long time."

Does it depend on inspiration then? "Yes, but the inspiration also comes from internalizing it and the familiarity with it."

And that to a layman can be a somewhat complex process. "At the start, do you look at the words from a purely musical point of view? Or do you also look at the literary value of the work, the emotional content, etc?" we asked.

"Oh, everything. I'm hoping that right away I hear musical ideas, at least musical textures, and then I let it work. The specific musical moments come to me later. But I have to look at it - first, is it rhyme, is it prose? Are they short sentences or long? Does the person speak with an accent, is it an old person, a young person, what has the person been through? All of that stuff is very important to what the music is going to sound like."

Therefore the text helps to shape the music?

"Yes, the text definitely helps to shape the music because for me it's very important that the words be understandable. And also that you get the essential psychology of the characters by their speaking those words: even if they're not saying what they feel, even if they're saying something contrary to what they feel - that's a key to personality as well. So, all of that sort of starts to help me hear music. But I always have to have the situation and the words."

And when from out of the blue... "I hear a melody or something that goes with a particular text, I feel very lucky if I manage to get it down on paper. Otherwise it will disappear. I've written on envelopes and all kinds of things." Or hummed into a tape recorder? "Oh, yes. I've done that too."

Then, after he has it all together comes the time for the final score. "Which gets written first - the vocal music or the piano music?" we wondered.

"It's simultaneous. But usually because I write for singers, I hear a vocal line in my head first. But it's always a vocal line that already has sort of harmonic textures."

It is told that SCHUBERT, a phenomenal Lieder composer, could spin out eight songs in a day. So, how many songs does a modern composer like HEGGIE write - in, say, a month ?

"In a month? I don't know how it averages out in a month because I have other projects. Right now I'm writing a big theater piece. But I'd say now I write them as the projects come. So.. like in April I wrote 8 songs, in June I was really focused on AT THE STATUE OF VENUS so I didn't write any songs other than Venus. Then just recently, I wrote some songs for JOYCE CASTLE - a set of 5."

Which occasioned the question: "Do you always write a song for somebody?" Now yes, because my time is so limited. And it really helps me to know whom I'm writing for.

Such was the case, for example, with the beautiful song cycle which came about from HEGGIE's friendship with Sister HELEN PREJEAN, the original author of as well as a lead character in DEAD MAN WALKING. We heard it sung by SUSAN GRAHAM (who of course was the mezzo-soprano who created the role of Sister HELEN) at her LA OPERA recital debut with pianist MALCOLM MARTINEAU .

"Oh, yes. Sister HELEN wrote the poems especially for me. What she actually did was write seven or eight meditations, and then I sort of played with them and whittled them down to four. It's called 'THE DEEPEST DESIRE' and I wrote it for SUSIE GRAHAM. It was dedicated to her. I wrote it for her in 2002."

It is a piece that HEGGIE has orchestrated.

"Yes, that's another thing I did this year - was orchestrate that. It works really well with orchestra. And JOYCE DIDONATO - she makes her Met debut tonight - sang and PATRICK SUMMERS conducted her with the ST> PAUL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA this year. JOYCE has recorded it too, with piano, and her recital disk is coming out this month and it's called THE DEEPEST DESIRE.

LISTEN to a clip:


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Perhaps it is natural for most of us to assume that orchestrating a piece is the most difficult and complicated part of all. But for the supremely gifted like Heggie, it's just a small step from piano score to orchestration - no big deal!

"You know, I think orchestrally - right from the start. And I actually love to orchestrate. To me that's like coloring in a picture, giving it depth. If you want to think of it visually - it's as if you had the outline of everything, the whole structure and the architecture in mind, the black and white, and I get to color it in. I already hear all the depth and the color, but orchestra helps you hear it. To me orchestrating is a very fast process. My second opera, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, for example, I orchestrated in a month."

We wondered which composers have had the most influence on him. SCHUBERT, perhaps? Interestingly, though not surprisingly to someone who's gained some familiarity with HEGGIE's music, he draws inspiration from composers of more recent times.


Although they are in a very real sense competitors, HEGGIE does not shun his fellow composers but actually interacts with them quite a bit.

"Oh, yes. I have a lot of good friends who are composers - classical and musical theater composers. Actually, I find them a very collegial group of people. I think there's that sense of competition. But you know, once you've had a certain amount of success, competition surely goes away. They certainly appreciate each other. And I really feel so in awe of some of the talent that's out there - people who are working so hard to create things. Because it is a lot of work. If you're a composer and you're making a living of it, you are working all of the time."

And being a composer of vocal music, he finds that singers actually influence his work.

"But you know, there are other influences too, like the singers. I mean, the way people will sing will influence the way I write too. Also, I always think of the singer as a collaborator. And so, I like to have the singer working with me and see how it's coming off the page, if it's working or not - will a different high note work there, is it too high - all of those things I can work out with the singer."

Having just done an interview with the tenor BEN HEPPNER, we asked if perhaps sometime he'd write something for him.

"That's a dream of mine. He's a nice man, a great man!"

And who else among today's singers does he enjoy writing - or would love to write - songs for?

"Oh, gosh! Well, I would write anything for AUDRA MCDONALD- I've written one song for Audra, as part of her 'SEVEN DEADLY SINS;' SUSAN GRAHAM, FLICKA, JOYCE DIDONATO, NATHAN GUNN, PAUL GROVES, BRYN TERFEL. I mean - all the great singers. There's a reason they're great, you know. They inhabit those songs. And they have this amazing instrument to convey not just beautiful singing, but character and passion and color and nuance - they're rare people."

At home in the world of computers, HEGGIE is by no means a technology-averse person. Yet he writes music the old-fashioned way: "I write everything by hand, and then I send it to a copyist. I just like writing with my hand. It's the way I've always done it. And also, I like the sense of making a mess. You know, it's like giving myself permission to make a big mess, and sort of find the truth in the midst of all that chaos. And I like feeling the pencil and the paper. You feel a more personal connection. I often think about it more than when I'm just typing into a computer. And to me it's very important to think about it and process it over and over again."

HEGGIE has served as composer-in-residence in various places on several occasions, among them with the EOS ORCHESTRA in NY. What exactly does a composer-in-residence do?

"What I did at EOS was work in their education program, as well as write one piece per year. And when I was composer-in-residence at SAN FRANCISCO OPERA, it was basically just to give me a situation where I could focus entirely on writing the opera."

It has been years since he first became known as a song-writer and of course decades since his first composition. How different is early HEGGIE from today's HEGGIE?

"Very different. I've stripped away layers. I've become more direct. My earlier stuff was more obscure. And now I'm much clearer with the musical line, and the dramatic line as well. I think what happened when I was writing DEAD MAN WALKING was that I suddenly realized that all along I've been a theater composer. That was for some reason a big discovery for me. I never thought of myself as a theater composer. I had thought of myself as a song-writer. Then it made sense why I was interested in particular texts and particular themes now - because they were theatrical."

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Watch a video of "Jake Heggie on Jake Heggie; excerpted from FanFaire Foundation's "Writing Opera Today - A Music Appreciation Event" 
View a video clip of SCENES from DEADMAN WALKING

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