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Artist Spotlight: Jake Heggie, Composer of 'It's A Wonderful Life' Opera

November 16, 2018

The holidays are just around the corner and so is the West Coast Premiere of It's A Wonderful Life, set to open at the War Memorial Opera House via San Francisco Opera on Saturday, November, 17, 2018. When I first heard about this opera, my ears perked up because I'm a huge fan of the 1946 film with good 'ol Jimmy Stuart. It's such an iconic story that has even been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made!

I've been really curious about how this film will be transformed into an opera and what the music will be like. So I sat down for coffee in Hayes Valley (?pre-toxic air wave) with Composer Jake Heggie who is the mastermind behind the music for It's A Wonderful Life. Scroll below to find out how he got started as a modern-day opera composer and what inspired his It's A Wonderful Life opera...

Jake Heggie

In case you aren't familiar with Jake Heggie, Jake has become one of the most sought-after opera composers of our time and, fun fact, he's based right here in the Bay Area! He started his musical journey as a pianist and formed a passion for creating his own pieces and studied composition at UCLA. He also loved being a part of the 'behind-the-scenes world of arts' so he worked in arts administration and soon enough, landed a job as the Public Relations Associate at the San Francisco Opera.

While he was there, he wrote arias and pieces for some of the opera singers for fun. And out of the blue one day, the San Francisco Opera General Director at the time (Lofti Mansouri) called him in his office and said, "You know, you've been writing songs for opera singers that are now being performed all over the world... Have you ever thought about writing a full opera?".

In a blink of an eye, Lofti sent Jake to New York City to work with Playwright Terrence McNally to see what they could come up with. Sure enough, they created an incredible opera called Deadman Walking. By next year, this production will have been performed in over 70 international theaters and it has just been announced in the 2020 season at The Metropolitan Opera. Talk about the ultimate success story!

More about Jake's Career...

Jake Heggie, piano

Why did you decide to compose operas vs. other genres of music?

I love great pop singers and I love great musical theater singers but there's something about the live, unamplified voice and the range of expressivity and range of colors - is kind of mind-blowing. I also loved how the stories and productions were so compelling and so grand. A lot of people don't start off with opera, they find their way to it and that was kind of my case.

What most inspires you while you're composing?

Coming from a music and public relations background, to me, it's important that the audience is included on the journey. I'm not interested in that sort of assertive, academic style that keeps the audience at a distance. I want everyone to be right with it at the very first note! And I want to give music to singers that they can embrace and soar with. To me, it's all about the emotional heart of the journey throughout an opera for both the performers and the audience.

When you're composing, where is your go-to music making oasis?

I have a little studio that I work at in the Haight, which is about a mile from where I live in the Castro. I go there everyday. I can walk, I can take a bus or I can take a drive, depending how lazy I am... and it's totally private. Inside I have my grand piano, a table, lamp, printer and all of my archives - everything that I've ever written since I was a teenager. It's a pretty simple space but it helps me stay alert to what is going on in my head rather than the atmosphere around me.

How do ideas come to you for your next composition?

I get a lot of my ideas while walking around. We have an old dog and he loves going out for his walks everyday. So I'll take him out, often sing ideas in my phone and then walk over to my studio and work them out on the piano. It's definitely about having a ritual routine - and coffee is definitely a very important part of that (as he sips on his drink)!

But to be honest, I can write any mood or emotion if I personally am content and happy. So it's very important to stay centered and happy to find creativity.

More about the Opera...

Why did you choose It's a Wonderful Life as the storyline?

When you're approaching a new opera, you try to pick a story that's a big emotional story that has universal themes and can truly fill an opera house. It's A Wonderful Life was just that - it has been filing movie houses for decades and it has such a powerful storyline. So when I was asked by Houston Grand Opera to write a Christmas opera, I wanted to find something that was big and iconic and told through an American lens. That's how I decided to choose It's A Wonderful Life's storyline for my next opera.

Tell us about the process to transform It's a Wonderful Life into an Opera...

The script is a public domain and it was never copyrighted so it wasn't difficult getting the rights to do them. Paramount owns the licensing for it and they trademarked the title so that took a bit of time but it was also pretty simple. Once we had that, we hit the ground running!

The most challenging part was finding a balance of staying true to the original storyline but making it feel fresh for the stage. Librettist, Gene Scheer started working on the storyline and text, then I came in to write the music and then our amazing set and production team came in to design the set, lighting, etc.

How long did it take for this to happen, from start to finish?

In 2011, we started thinking about doing this and then in 2012 we started working on it. The premiere took place in 2016 with the Houston Grand Opera. So about 5-6 years!

How is the opera different from the film?

Librettist, Gene Scheer came up with this idea of the set being an existential attic with hundreds of doors and each one of them represents milestones in George Bailey's life. So you'll see a lot of them in the production and you'll take a journey through some of them to find out what truly matters to George. We find out that in order to help people, you should find out more about who they are so you'll know how to help them.' To George, family and community mattered most to him and in the end, they are what keeps him from taking his own life.

Also, in this opera, the angel is Clara vs. Clarence because opera is all about vocal casting. I didn't want to write for two male voices the whole night - I wanted a soprano and a tenor. That's much more interesting to me vocally.

What excites you most about the West Coast Premiere with the San Francisco Opera?

We've made a lot of exciting adjustments with the music and the set that is really going to make this production sparkle even more. There are also several company debuts happening such as Golda Schultz who is from South Africa that will be playing Clara! The costumes, the dancing and the projections are also so much fun - it's truly like a Broadway Opera production.

What is something that the audience should definitely look out for when they're watching the opera?

Follow the development of George and Mary Bailey. The music that they sing to each other is so moving and remarkable. I didn't realize this until I started working on the opera, but Mary Bailey is such a rock star! She is one of the strongest people in the opera and in the story. She really is the rock for George. And that's why we expanded her aria and wrote a big duet for her and Clara. She is the one that really comes to the rescue at the end. It makes me almost cry. We should all have someone in our life that looks after us in that way.

Fire Round!!

 I always like to do a fun 'fire round' with artists to find out more about them under a time crunch. So I asked Jake six questions and told him he only had 2-3 seconds to answer each...

Frosty or Rudolph?


Red or Green?

... long pause... Green!

Jimmy Stuart or Bing Crosby?

Jimmy Stuart.

It's A Wonderful Life or White Christmas?

White Christmas! Oh, should I have said that? Hahah!

Spiked Eggnog or Baileys?

Spiked Eggnog.

Do you compose with a pencil or pen?



Red Curtain Addict Event at the San Francisco Opera

Want to meet Jake yourself?? I want to personally invite you to our Red Curtain Addict Night Out at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday, December 1st to see It's A Wonderful Life with us! Jake will be coming to our pre-show mixer so you can meet him and ask your own questions over a complimentary glass of champagne. We can't wait t see you there!


Photos by Lars Kampmann

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