Boyish at 62, the American composer Jake Heggie isn’t one to preen. “I was 39 when Dead Man Walking opened,” he says. “At that age, Mozart had been dead for four years.” Noted. But how many opera composers have scored a bull’s-eye the first time out? Mascagni, for one, with Cavalleria Rusticana, and then Leoncavallo, with Pagliacci. As for Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini? Nope.
Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir of two killers she counseled on death row (the source as well for the Oscar-winning Tim Robbins movie), Heggie’s instant classic went on from its San Francisco Opera premiere, in 2000, to some 70 productions as far afield as Copenhagen, Sydney, Cape Town, and Budapest. Just last month, the ritzy Metropolitan Opera followed suit, marking Heggie’s house debut.
And already, another career milestone looms. On October 20, Houston Grand Opera opens its season with the unveiling of Heggie’s 10th opera, on which high hopes are riding. Under the title Intelligence, it traces the true history of two women during the Civil War, one from a family of slaveholders, the other once enslaved by that same family. Joining forces on behalf of the better angels of our nature, they contrive to pass military secrets to the Union generals.
From the vantage point of these coronations, Heggie’s backstory up to the time of his first big break looks like the stuff of a classic Bildungsroman. “I started making up songs when I was in single digits,” Heggie tells me. “I’d listen to my dad’s big-band records of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, etcetera, and make up songs using their voices.” But against the upbeat soundtrack, Jake’s father was fighting a losing battle with depression. For comfort, young Jake turned to the old masters. “As a kid,” Heggie says, “my mentors and friends were Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann, Schubert, and Bach. They saw me through my father’s suicide when I was 11. They understood!” In his teens, formal composition studies at U.C.L.A. followed.
Key chapters in the imaginary novel of Heggie’s life would dwell on his relationship with Johana Harris, a supremely gifted musician and faculty member a half-century his senior, whom he married barely into his 20s. Heggie was a pianist of great promise, and for a while it looked like concertizing—often with Harris—would be his ticket. But when he developed focal dystonia in his right hand, he pivoted to marketing and P.R., quickly finding his niche at San Francisco Opera. (Harris died in 1995; since 2008, Heggie has been married to the San Francisco–based singer and actor Curt Branom.)
“I knew I didn’t want to be in academia,” Heggie says. “And the skills I learned at San Francisco Opera were invaluable! It was like the perfect apprenticeship for an aspiring opera composer, though I didn’t know that’s what I was back then. I just knew I was really happy—being immersed in opera every day.”
Before long, songs of Heggie’s were circulating among the starry likes of Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Sylvia McNair, and Carol Vaness, who became his ambassadors on concert stages around the world. Their interest wasn’t lost on Lotfi Mansouri, the company’s charismatic general manager, who was looking for a composer to discover.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Heggie says. “Miracle! But I was ready.” Since then, he’s adapted novels including Moby-Dick, no less, as well as Frank Capra’s screen classic It’s a Wonderful Life. And let’s not forget Great Scott, a valentine to the Yankee diva Joyce DiDonato, set to a way-over-the-top original libretto by Terrence McNally. “I’ve always been able to choose the stories for my operas,” Heggie says. “That’s vital. Unless I’m absolutely on fire, I’ll never last the three, four, five years it takes to get to the finish line. Opera is not easy. There’s no secret formula. You write for the premiere and then hope for the best.”
Dead Man Walking is on at the Metropolitan Opera through October 21. Intelligence will be on at Houston Grand Opera beginning October 20
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Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii