In the key of life
With his first opera, Dead Man Walking, gay composer Jake Heggie reclaims a dream he thought was lost forever
Three years ago, when playwright Terrence McNally suggested that Dead Man Walking might make a terrific opera, composer Jake Heggie instantly knew he was right. “It was like a thunderbolt,” Heggie remembers. “It just seemed the most perfect choice for a new opera.”
Heggie’s hunch could be proved right when Dead Man Walking, his first opera, makes its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera October 7. Based on the 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean and the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking is the story of a Louisiana nun who offers spiritual counsel to a death row prisoner and in doing so tests the limits of forgiveness, redemption, and love.
For Heggie, 39, Dead Man Walking is another kind of redemption. A little over a decade ago he was suffering from depression and a repetitive-stress hand injury that sidelined his performing and composing careers. “I really thought it was all over,” he recalls, “that I would just live on the periphery of the music world.”
It didn’t happen that way. By the mid ’90s Heggie was working in the public relations department of the San Francisco Opera and writing art songs on the side for the likes of Renee Fleming and Frederica von Stade. “I think there’s this natural instinct that comes from a very, very deep place in Jake,” says Von Stade, who will sing the part of the condemned man’s mother in Dead Man Walking. “He’s enormously sympathetic and very caring about people, and that comes out in his music.”
The opera’s general director, Lotfi Mansouri, clearly agrees. After he heard his PR aide’s music, he named Heggie the company’s first Chase composer-in-residence in 1998. He also commissioned Dead Man Walking and proposed a Heggie-McNally collaboration.
The story is innately operatic, Heggie says, in that “you have two characters from very ordinary backgrounds thrown into an extraordinary circumstance fraught with conflict … [where] larger forces seem to be dominating their lives.” To tell the story in music, he integrated Standard opera idioms with rock, pop, jazz, gospel, and the regional music of the South.
McNally, whose love for opera inspired his plays Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, was “an astonishing collaborator,” Heggie says. “He had no ego associated with what he gave me. He said, `What I need to do is write words that inspire music for you. Once that music takes off, you cut what you need to, rewrite what you need to, decide where you want ensembles, all that stuff.’ So I did.”
Heggie didn’t spend time in prisons or with inmates (“I decided to use my imagination and heart”) but inspiration in the real Sister Helen. “She’s amazing,” he says. “She called me a week before the press conference [announcing the opera] and said, `Jake, this is Sister Helen. I don’t know booscat about opera, so you’re gonna have to educate me!’ She’s one of those people that has this fire burning inside her. She just knows what she’s about.”
Dead Man Walking is being directed by another opera newcomer, Joe Mantello (best known for directing both the Broadway and film versions of Love! Valour! Compassion!), with Susan Graham singing the part of Sister Helen and John Packard as the prisoner.
The piece is clearly the largest step in an amazing career resurrection: In the ’80s, when Heggie suffered the depression and hand injury, he was living in Los Angeles and married to his former teacher and performing partner, the late pianist Johana Harris.
The relationship with Harris, who was 48 years older than Heggie, “was based on love and affection and mutual respect,” he says, “and it was, in that sense, a real marriage. In the sense that I was gay, it was not a real marriage.” Feeling a need to “stop denying a big part of myself,” Heggie moved to San Francisco in 1993–with Harris’s blessing–and simultaneously reclaimed his life. “She knew it was something that had to happen and was very supportive,” Heggie says. The couple never divorced, and Harris died in 1995.
Today, Heggie has a partner of one year, singer-actor Curt Branom, and takes part in the rearing of Branom’s 5-year-old son. Last year his first CD, The Faces of Love, a collection of art songs performed by Renee Fleming, Sylvia McNair, Carol Vaness, and others, was released.
“When I finally dealt with being gay and open and happy about it and not ashamed,” Heggie says, “my music changed. It opened up and became more honest; it became the music I always wanted to write but never could. And it suddenly became the music that singers and audiences responded to.”
Find more information on Jake Heggie and Dead Man Walking at www.advocate.com
Guthmann is a film critic and reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.
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