Houston Grand Opera: First, the Words...

Classic Arts Features   Houston Grand Opera: First, the Words...
Last Acts composer Jake Heggie writes about the art of collaboration. His new work premieres at Houston Grand Opera February 29.

Composition can be a lonely business.

You spend days or even months by yourself, sometimes writing easily, sometimes smashing your head on a table or a keyboard to get any notes out at all. That is alternately enjoyable and frustrating. But a theater composer by nature has an intense need to be connected with people. For me, collaboration is what delivers the most inspiration to compose. It always has. The alone time is terribly important, but the creative interaction invigorates my imagination like nothing else.

During the past 15 years, I have been fortunate to collaborate not only with some of the great singers of our time, but with inspirational conductors, directors, instrumentalists, arts administrators, and most of all: wonderful writers.

Collaborations with writers are especially important because, of course, without words there could be no songs and no opera. I cannot fathom why it is common practice in opera to leave the librettist's name off the billing. Why is it only Mozart's Cos‹ fan tutte and not Mozart and Da Ponte's? Yes, music makes it an opera. But if the libretto isn't strong, the opera will be flawed. A composer may write fabulous music, but a weak libretto can kill it as an opera. It is theater, and a good libretto gives the composer the best chance to create a successful opera.

When I was a teenager, I set my own texts and wrote pop songs and musical theater ballads. (I was sure I'd be writing for Barbra Streisand or Carly Simon. No dice.) But when I was 17, my first composition teacher, the late Ernst Bacon, introduced me to poetry by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and after that, nothing was the same. Those poems leapt off the page and sang to me, and throughout my twenties I wrote songs based on poetry by wonderful dead authors. A great and rewarding challenge, but very lonely. Rewrites are out, and there's no way to call and ask what this or that meant to the writer.

In my late twenties, I suffered an injury to my right hand (focal dystonia) that forced me to stop playing piano, and as a result I stopped composing, too. I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and landed a job at the San Francisco Opera in 1994 as the staff writer. I was in the public relations and marketing department and interacted with some of the world's great singers on a daily basis. A few of them became very good friends and they inspired me to compose again. Thanks to watching rehearsals for Conrad Susa and Philip Littell's The Dangerous Liaisons, I became interested in collaborating with a writer.

So, for countertenor Brian Asawa and baritone Earle Patriarco, I asked my friend John Hall in Los Angeles for new texts (Encountertenor and Thoughts Unspoken). For soprano Nicolle Foland, I went to the Bay Area poet Gini Savage (Natural Selection). For soprano Kristin Clayton, it was Philip Littell (Eve-Song). For Frederica von Stade, she herself wrote the words (Paper Wings, On the Road to Christmas, and Winter Roses). For Jennifer Larmore, it was Gavin Dillard (Of Gods and Cats), and so on. I also continued to set the classic poets, and it was a rich time of learning and growing through lively exchange, challenge and comparison. This period of exploration with writers led to a conversation that changed my life forever.

In 1996, Lotfi Mansouri, who was then general director at San Francisco Opera, called me into his office and said, "I want you to write a new opera for the millennium. And I want to send you to New York to meet with Terrence McNally. I think you would make a great team." Now remember, I was the PR guy at the time. The PR guy who wrote songs.

So how is a 35-year old composer supposed to respond to that? A new work for San Francisco Opera? With Terrence McNally? It seemed impossible, improbable, terrifying and incredibly exciting. What young composer would turn it down?

I met with Terrence in May of 1996 when he was still working on his book for the musical Ragtime and preparing his play Love! Valor! Compassion! to be made into a movie. He was also moving to a new apartment and sorting through his vast record collection. He was a bit distracted. Lotfi had proposed a comedy for the millennium. Terrence wasn't interested. I thought it was a no-go, and then I got a surprise phone call in February 1997. Terrence wanted to meet and talk about the opera. We met in June and he said the words "Dead Man Walking" and life again took a surprising turn. It was the last thing I'd expected to hear‹and it was an inspired idea.

We talked about how we would work together and Terrence told me up front that he is not a poet, a novelist or a librettist per se. He is a playwright. And he told me he would write a play and set up scenes and dialogue that he hoped would inspire music. If I felt the music taking me in a certain direction and the words were not going there, he would rewrite, or I could fill in with my own words and he'd work on it later. It was to be a real exchange and collaboration. Terrence has a famous passion for opera, and a brilliant sense of how to set things up to work on the stage. All I had to do was trust, listen, feel and write.

After discussing the opera for about nine months, Terrence was ready to write the first act libretto. He wanted me to be with him, so in March 1998, we flew to his house in Key West. On the cab ride to the airport, the main hymn "He will gather us around" came to me, so I knew it would be a good trip. He wrote the first act libretto in four days and then read it to me. Six months later, in December 1998, I played through Act I for him at his house in Bridgehampton, and he wrote the second act libretto in four days. Less than a year later, we had the entire opera. Revisions after a workshop in August of 1999 were minimal and I had plenty of time to orchestrate. Throughout, there was a constant exchange of thoughts and ideas.

I had found a generous collaborator with an innate sense of how opera differs from straight theater, and what it does best. I had also found a great friend and a mentor. That first major collaboration has served as the standard and model for every collaboration I have had since. It was my good fortune to start by working with the very best.

I learned several big lessons through that experience. Collaborators are creative partners who will often work together for many years. To make it work, each has to respect the other and share a common goal. They have to be able to depend upon each other. And they have to be flexible enough to see other points of view and make changes, but also know when to defend a position. They cannot be afraid to speak their minds, but must do so constructively‹and always for the strength and benefit of the work.

Working with Terrence inspired me to go on to several other gratifying collaborations, including original works with Armistead Maupin, Sister Helen Prejean and Charlene Baldridge, among others. I also collaborated again with Terrence to create a musical scene for soprano called "At the Statue of Venus," and I set the final monologue from his play Master Class. These collaborations have subsequently informed my perspective on classic poems and texts, and have actually given me a new freedom to explore those with fresh eyes.

In 2004, I finally had the opportunity to work with the very gifted writer Gene Scheer. When we met, I knew I'd found a collaborator for life. From day one, there was a natural ease and free flowing exchange of ideas. Gene works passionately and with infectious enthusiasm. We have great respect for each other's work and we enjoy being together. We challenge each other, inspire each other, and feel free to comment on all aspects of our work together. My work is definitely better thanks to working with him, and I know he feels the same about his own work. He's quick and prolific and in a short time we've written several song cycles and two stage works.

For seven years, I searched for the right circumstances to create a music theater piece based on Terrence McNally's short play Some Christmas Letters. After several incarnations, I realized it was actually a chamber opera for three characters. Gene felt inspired by it, and agreed to create a libretto based on Terrence's play, and that is how Last Acts (Three Decembers) came about. My two primary collaborators involved in the same project. A dream come true.

The freedom and adventure I find in fresh, lively collaborations has led me to work almost exclusively with living writers now. Somehow, everything about the work feels more vibrant, flexible and theatrical this way. Maybe later I'll get back to some of the dead guys and gals whose work I adore. But for now, it is intensely rewarding to be able to look somebody in the eye and say "So, I have this idea_ã_"

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