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Fringe Festival Spotlights Jake Heggie

CFA students, composer share dramatic night of song

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Jake Heggie, opera composer

Composer Jake Heggie performs tonight at the BU Theatre in Art Song Meets Theatre: Jake Heggie on Jake Heggie. Photo by Art and Clarity

Composer and pianist Jake Heggie has gained a reputation for groundbreaking, lyrical operas as well as tender songs, orchestral works, and chamber music. But teaching remains one of his great loves, and this week marks the composer’s fifth annual week-long residency at the College of Fine Arts.

That residency, with students from BU’s Opera Institute and the School of Music vocal performance department, culminates tonight, October 28, in Art Song Meets Theatre: Jake Heggie on Jake Heggie, an intimate evening of student performances featuring highlights from Heggie’s repertoire.

The free concert at the BU Theatre closes this year’s annual CFA Fringe Festival, which staged Heggie’s Three Decembers as its second offering. Tonight’s concert will include Heggie’s recently premiered song cycle “Pieces of 9/11,” as well as his dramatic song cycle “For a Look or a Touch,” which celebrates the freedoms of postwar Germany while taking a solemn look at the persecution of gays during the Holocaust. Other songs, to be sung at the piano in recital format, reflect his take on broken relationships among friends, lovers, and family, and on war, hope, and reconciliation. In keeping with CFA’s annual keyword initiative, the concert program draws on the theme of violence, this year’s keyword.

The recipient of a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship, Heggie is the composer of the widely performed opera Dead Man Walking, as well as The End of the Affair, To Hell and Back, and Three Decembers. His epic opera Moby Dick was commissioned by Dallas Opera for its inaugural season last spring.

BU Today recently spoke with Heggie about his teaching, what tonight’s audiences can expect, and when New Englanders will have the opportunity to see Moby Dick.

BU Today: How do your university residencies complement—or fuel—your work as a composer?

Heggie: The residencies give me a chance to reconnect with young singers, pianists, and composers, to remind them—and myself—what it is that makes opera and song so joyful, special, and inspiring. The students themselves are often so immersed in mastering the demanding technique of performing that an active, honest, and authentic connection to the music and words sometimes gets lost. I can bring that to them, because that’s all I do as a composer: connect, connect, connect. And in the end, it’s what matters most. I find their enthusiasm, energy, ideas, commitment, determination, and eagerness terribly inspiring. It makes me want to write more and better every time.

Tell us what audiences can expect to hear at Art Song Meets Theatre and about your new song cycle commemorating the anniversary of 9/11.

I have been deeply impressed by the singing and level of talent at BU, so first and foremost you’ll hear beautiful voices—gifted young artists—singing about things that matter to them and to us. Each of the songs will be staged in some way, too, which I find very invigorating, because it means there’s a real theatrical element to the program. I’m a theater composer, so I am all about telling stories, following a narrative, and doing it in a very theatrical, lyrical way. The theme of the concert is centered around violence, so the majority of songs deal with issues of violence and the hope for redemption, forgiveness, and peace. The “Pieces of 9/11” cycle was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and premiered just over a month ago there. The piece features texts drawn from true stories told to my lyricist, Gene Scheer. Stories from first responders who flew from Houston to New York City, from a Muslim schoolteacher, from city officials, and from the family of Lauren Cotuzzi Grandcolas, who died on Flight 93, pregnant with her first child. Musically, it’s heavily influenced by a pop-folk style with an underpinning of Bach, drawn from the prelude to his G Major Cello Suite.

Critics have praised your operas as accessible. What does that mean to you, and if it’s another word for broad appeal, are you aware of it when creating your work?

First of all, I never read reviews. That’s not why I write in the first place. They matter a great deal, of course, and I’m thrilled to find out when they are good, but my job is to focus on the music. And I only know one way to write—with a passionate response to the idea at hand: the poem, the scene, the moment. How will music I write lift that to another plane of expression? If the music is accessible, I hope it means I’m not excluding the audience from the journey. I’m welcoming them into the world of the piece, and then offering surprises along the way. Challenging them every now and again, but also giving them what they need.

Your operas have drawn on divergent sources. What is it about a novel, short story, poem, or memoir that inspires you to compose something?

It’s very hard to say what inspires me, because there is a big range in my work. But I think more than anything, it has to be compelling characters in a precarious situation where something terribly important is at stake. Often that means a life-or-death situation in opera, but it can also mean the trajectory of one’s identity: a choice between grace or disgrace. I love transformative journeys that take us through a personal crisis where it feels that larger forces are hovering—forces of good or forces of evil. Where an individual’s choices suddenly change the course of their life, or another’s life. Those kinds of journeys can then inspire great words, and then hopefully some excellent music and drama.

How closely do you work with your librettist? Can you describe the collaborative process?

I work very closely with the librettist—and constantly. A libretto really isn’t ready until it inspires music. But it must also provide a rock-solid foundation and scaffolding for the music: dramatic flow, character development, and so forth. All of that has to be in good shape before the music happens. And then, when the music does start to happen, often the libretto has to change. Because music alters everything and gives even more information than what was on the page to begin with. We learn so much about a character from the kind of music they sing, the texture, timbre, color of it. So, often that means I’m writing and learning more about the character, and have to go back to the librettist and say, “Guess what?” and we do some rewriting. So, the librettist is with me from the beginning through rehearsals and to opening night, and we are often both fixing and changing things together. And then, very often, we learn something at the first performance and have more work to do.

You are sometimes compared with Benjamin Britten. What composers, living and dead, inspire you most?

I am? Wow. That’s very touching. He’s one of my heroes, and his opera Peter Grimes is one of the great masterpieces of the stage, one of the first pieces I saw and the “aha!” light went on in my head. I always thought opera was kind of dumb until I saw that piece. It was a revelation. I’m also deeply inspired by Sondheim, Bernstein, Barber, Glass, Adams, Gershwin, Poulenc, Debussy, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Bach. A big range. There are also many singers who inspire me, too. Concert and opera singers, of course, but also people like k.d. lang, Audra McDonald, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. There’s a range for you.

Is there one comment about your work that resounded with you, made you say, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to convey”?

I am always most gratified when an audience member lets me know how moved they were or how taken by a certain moment. Generally speaking, the audience doesn’t lie. I’m also always terribly gratified and moved when a young student tells me that singing a particular song or opera of mine has had a big impact on their life. That is terribly meaningful.

When is Moby Dick coming to the Northeast?

There is an East Coast premiere in the works for the not-so-distant future. I can’t tell you more than that—but I’m very excited to share the piece. It was such a massive undertaking, and it was a big, big success with the audience. It’s been picked up by quite a few companies. Coming up is Calgary, San Diego Opera, and San Francisco Opera.

Art Song Meets Theatre: Jake Heggie on Jake Heggie is tonight only, Friday, October 28, at the BU Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave. By public transportation, take the MBTA Green Line E trolley to the Symphony stop
 or the Orange Line to the Mass Ave stop. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Call 617-353-5201 to reserve a seat.

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Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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