Wide Angle

The Most Popular Opera Composer of Our Time on Why His Work Resonates

Jake Heggie breaks down his process for captivating audiences.

A white man in a blue shirt concentrating hard on something.
Jake Heggie James Niebuhr

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with acclaimed opera composer Jake Heggie. They discussed how he knew he wanted to pursue this career, what it was like to collaborate with Margaret Atwood, and why he’s drawn to certain themes in his work. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: You have composed several operas, including Dead Man Walking [about a nun who becomes a spiritual adviser to a convicted murderer], which I’ve seen described as the most performed American opera of our time. You’ve written more than one piece about domestic abuse—Songs for Murdered Sisters and Again. You wrote music about 9/11. I’m picking selectively from your oeuvre, but would it be true to say that you’re drawn to big, heavy themes?

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Jake Heggie: I’m drawn to big human themes. Big, transformative events that we can all connect with in some way. Things that feel very much of our time and yet are timeless. Things that feel—because I was born and raised in this country—very American, and yet are universal. I can’t write a piece about the death penalty. I can’t write a piece about domestic violence. But I can write a piece about people who are experiencing that. That’s the line for me: big transformative events, intimate stories with large forces at work that are beyond our control. I find those very, very inspiring and certainly operatic. Also, when I’m writing—especially because I write a lot for singers—I want things that would make sense to be sung, and where the emotion is big enough to fill an opera house, or to fill a concert hall.

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Does that limit the kinds of moods that you can work in? Levity and fun and silliness are of course a huge tradition in opera. There’s a lot of farce in opera. I’ve never seen Dead Man Walking, but I’m having a hard time picturing a lot of levity.

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And yet there is, because that’s very human. It puts the audience at ease, it puts the characters on stage at ease, and it’s just natural to go to humor in very difficult moments. One of my heroes, Stephen Sondheim, is a genius at this. When things are really dark, suddenly you laugh out loud, but it’s critical. And, I think even in Songs for Murdered Sisters, there’s a wonderful memory of a dream where [baritone Joshua Hopkins] is remembering playing with his sister, and all the fun that they had and calling out to each other.

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There have to be lighter moments to make us realize what was lost and what’s at stake. The joy and the beauty that can’t happen now because of what has taken place.

Not to get too personal after what you told me about your [father’s death]—that has to be more than just a casual storyline to you, right?

I can write from personal experience, big issues like this. They speak to me. I’ve lived through them, and maybe it’s my own way of processing and working it out. But I don’t know that there’s so much of that, because I love every single character. I have to be every character.

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I’ve never been a Catholic nun who’s a spiritual adviser to a death row inmate, and yet I think I wrote one pretty successfully. The same with a convicted murderer, or a one-legged sea captain. I haven’t been any of those things.

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It’s because it’s a human story. It’s a human experience. It’s a human being. My job as a theater composer is to empathize, and listen, and respond. That’s what I try to put on the page. I try not to do it premeditated. I try to let it just emerge and let things surprise me the way they will surprise the audience.

So, if a big theme or a big tune emerges, it is as much a surprise to me as to anyone. I am enormously grateful when the big tune emerges, and I will maximize that big tune. But it’s usually in the moment. I do get a lot of ideas just walking. I walk a lot all over San Francisco, so I’ll sing ideas into my phone when they come to me. Part of it is showing up every day, and just listening to these characters and letting them tell me how they want it to go.

To listen to the full interview with Jake Heggie, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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