A Wonderful Life: Meet Composer Jake Heggie

San Francisco composer Jake Heggie's career reads like a fairy tale: he was working in SF Opera public relations department when then-music director Lotfi Mansouri asked him to create his first full-length opera.

That work, Dead Man Walking, premiered to great acclaim in 2000. Since then, it's been produced more than sixty times around the world, and Heggie has created additional works like Great Scott and Moby-Dick, becoming one of the century's most successful opera composers.

This week, Opera Parallele, in conjunction with SF Jazz, is presenting his 2005 At The Statue Of Venus in a double-bill with Leonard Bernstein's Trouble In Tahiti.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gene Scheer, Patti Lupone, Isabel Bayrakdarian & Jake Heggie.

I question the wisdom of programming Trouble in Tahiti on Valentine's Day. Even At The Statue Of Venus presents a character who is very single!

At The Statue Of Venus is very hopeful, heartfelt piece. It's about: "yes, I will meet that person, I do have value, I'm lovable and deserving of love." It is perfect for Valentine's Day.

Trouble In Tahiti, of course, leaves a lot of questions after you do find the person. It's about an unhappy marriage, and it may not be the best feeling for Valentine's Day. Yet it's an exploration on the yearning for love in our life, and the yearning for connection and looking for the answer.

The actual matching musically of the pieces is brilliant. I would have never thought of it. That's why Opera Parallele is so amazing, Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel see these connections that even I don't see with my own work.

I feel deeply connected to Bernstein's music. He was one of the biggest influences on me early on. I knew his musicals: On The Town, West Side Story, Candide. Those were some of my earliest musical experiences in theater.

I didn't know anything about opera as a kid. I knew of Bernstein, and Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, all these classic musicals. He was hugely influential on me, and still is. You can hear it in my music. It's not deliberate, it's just there, that's part of who I am. That's why it made total sense for the pieces to be paired together.

At The Statue Of Venus was written for a soprano. This week, it's two mezzos who will sing the part.

It's going to be very demanding for the mezzo. I've given them a lot of optional notes, so they don't have to worry about the soprano tessitura too much and they can perform the piece with confidence.

Jack O'Brien, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally. | Photo: Karen Almond

This fall is the San Francisco premiere of your operatic adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life at SF Opera.

I'm very excited about that. It's a brand new version of it. The original in Houston was good, but we worked on it to make it better. We streamlined the storytelling and allowed some arias to take flight. I've added two duets and cut an entire character that we don't miss at all.

It's a piece about hope and community spirit, that your life is worth so much more that you could ever be aware of. To get that message across at holiday time, we just decided to get it off with a more explosive opening. It's an orchestral overture that is bright and fun rather than full of mystery and the music of space. It just seems to work better, it sets the tone of the piece in a positive way. That's what people are looking for at that time of year.

Until a piece is first performed, it's been all in our head. The final character to show up is the audience. Until then, we don't know how it's going to work out. That's why Broadway shows have previews in front of an audience where they change things every day. We don't get that in opera. We learned a lot from that first production and made the changes accordingly.

You were also commissioned to write an opera for the Merola Program, If I Were You. How is this coming along?

It was originally a book, Si J'etais Vous, by an American who lived in France, Julian Green. It's a modern day Faust story and it feels very timely: you don't have to look very far to see a lot people selling their soul, including in politics. It's a fantasy, but it feels very real. It's pushing me in all new directions, it's coming along very well.

The piece is optimistic. The fact that the main character, Fabien ed: after a deal with the devil allows him to swap bodies with others stops the madness of going body to body and dies as himself, it's a huge statement of hope and redemption. The big question facing him is: "Are you going to live for ever as someone else or are you die as yourself." He chooses to die as himself, which I find incredibly inspiring.

What's exciting, for a young artist program such as Merola, six of them will become the lead character at some time, as this soul moves from person to person. Six young artists become the lead character throughout the piece. And yes, I have found a secret phrase that he can sing to another person and his soul moves to that person's body. It's a wonderful device for an opera, don't you think? It's so dramatic, and it demands music to tell it.

Where do you spend time in San Francisco?

I live in the Castro, right on the hill between Castro and Noe Valley. I write in a studio in the Haight. I have a studio that I go to work in everyday. I need total privacy and quiet. It's not fair to my husband actor Curt Branom to expect him to vacate the house all day when I need to work.

I've had this studio for 13 years, it's completely private, no one knows when I'm there or not, it's the ideal workplace for me. I have been able to write many operas and many songs over the past few years. I have a piano and a desk and a printer, that's it. I do everything by hand. I'm very old-fashioned, I write everything by hand and send off to a copyist in New York who puts it in the computer and sends it back to me for corrections.

At The Statue Of Venus and Trouble In Tahiti will be performed at SFJAZZ (201 Franklin St. at Gough) from Thursday, February 15th to Sunday, February 18th.

San Francisco Opera is staging Heggie's It's A Wonderful Life from November 17th to December 9th.