S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: I love every single character I have to be every character 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 because it’s a human story. It’s a human experience. It’s a human being. And my job as a theater composer is to empathize and listen and respond.
S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Rumaan
S1: Alam, and I’m your other host, June Thomas.
S3: We heard another voice just now. June, who is your guest this week?
S1: That was Jake Heggie, who The Wall Street Journal described as, quote, the world’s most popular 21st century opera and art song composer. I think we all know what opera is but aren’t. Sung, of course, is vocal music typically written just for one voice with piano accompaniment. You might hear them often in a concert or a recital or that kind of occasion. And Jake Heggie is very prolific, but I think he’s probably best known for the opera version of Dead Man Walking.
S3: I feel like I say this all the time. Why? But composing music like really and truly seems like magic to me. Like, I don’t know how you conjure a sound that no one ever imagined before. I just I can’t comprehend it, you know. So what was your relationship to Heggie work prior to this conversation with him?
S1: I mean, I know exactly what you mean. It feels like there’s only a certain number of notes. Right. So many variations. Exactly.
S1: And yet they keep on doing it. So I kept seeing Jake’s name, whether it was like a new production of Dead Man Walking or an album he’d released. He did one recently with mezzo-Soprano, Jamie Barton, who’s a former working guest, I think we can call her a friend of the show or an upcoming art song cycle that he had written with words by Margaret Atwood. He seemed to be both extremely productive and to always be working with people that I admire. So I checked out some of his pieces and his work is beautiful, like Unexpected Shadows, the album he did with Jamie Barton and Songs for Murdered Sisters, the collaboration with Margaret Atwood. They’re just gorgeous. They’re haunting and incredibly moving.
S3: So all of our listeners are going to hear your chat. But I understand that Slate plus subscribers are going to get a little something extra this week.
S1: That’s right. I asked Jake about opera’s image as a sort of niche art product that’s only for a very small slice of the population. And I also asked him whether he would like to be more of a household name.
S3: Well, that sounds very juicy. And bonus segments like those are really just one of so many reasons that you should join Slate. Plus, today, you’ll get members only content like that, but you’ll also get zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danilova. His new podcast, Big Mood, Little Mood. And of course, you’ll be supporting the work that we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up, go to sitcom slash working plus. And I believe we also have a listener question this week.
S1: That is correct. Rumaan a listener who plays some stories in literary magazines in the 1990s, which is to say, the era of the self-addressed stamped envelope. But he hasn’t submitted since then and he’s looking for some advice on whether it’s worth figuring out current submission methods to get his new work out into the world.
S3: Well, we’ll talk about that a little bit later, but for now, let’s listen in to Jones conversation with the composer Jake Heggie.
S1: Who are you and what do you do?
S2: My name is Jake Heggie and I am a composer. I write operas and art song primarily, but also some chamber music, solo music, choral music, a bunch of stuff.
S1: Wow. So composer is one of those jobs like writer. It takes a certain amount of confidence or like self-assurance to even decide that it’s something you want to pursue. Like just saying I’m can feel like a lot. How did you decide that it was something you wanted to pursue?
S2: I think I knew from a very early age my dad listened to a lot of jazz, big band. So Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, those were my first people. And then Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, because I loved musicals and I started taking piano lessons in early age. But it was my father committed suicide when I was 10 and my mother had four kids to raise when she was thirty nine. And music became not only my refuge, my safe place, but it was these were my people. My people didn’t just include a few classmates who also had music. They included Beethoven and Schubert and Chopin. I felt like those were my mentors even at 10, 11 years old. And so it was very natural for me to want to write. And I found manuscript paper at a music store one day and I asked the guy what this was and he said, Oh, that’s so you can write music. And I said, OK, can you do that? He said, yes. So I started writing songs for Barbra Streisand first and solo piano pieces, and then it went from there. But it always felt very natural for me.
S1: I’m someone who really loves analog tools. I’m always surrounded by fountain pen and paper. And I read that you are adamant about writing your music by hand, as it were. Is that true? And if so, why is that important to you?
S2: Oh yes. I write everything by hand from the sketches at the beginning to the final draft and orchestration and any corrections all by hand. I’m very tactile. Music is very tactile to me. Being connected to an instrument, being connected to a pencil and feeling the paper, making a mess is central to creativity and certainly to composition. And I have never had the interest in learning one of the music writing programs. And I’ve been lucky enough that I’m able to include a budget in my projects to send that off. So I write it on the paper. I send it off to my copyist and publications, Rep. Bill Halib and and he sends it back. And then, you know, it’s but I’ve thought about learning and been a little embarrassed that I don’t know it. But then I thought, why am I embarrassed? This is as I’m very, very provocative this way. It hasn’t slowed me down.
S1: Yes. And so that’s unusual, is it? Most people write in these programs.
S2: Yes. And I actually do think there is an issue with that. I mentor a lot of younger composers and I go to schools and talk to young composers. And I think there’s a step missing in the connection to your work. I think once you know who you are as an artist, that you have a great sense of who you are as a person, as an individual, and you have a voice, then by all means, yes, use the tools. But I think when you’re trying to figure that out, getting to know yourself is getting to know yourself on the page, too. And I think there’s sometimes young composers can be misled because it looks perfect on the screen and it looks perfect when it’s printed out and it’s not done. It’s it’s like an early draft, but they think it looks perfect. So I think there’s a step missing to finding your own personality on the page.
S1: So you talked about kind of feeling that you were a composer and feeling that that was your. But, you know, you also talked about writing for Barbra Streisand. How did you decide that your calling was to classical music, to opera, to art song?
S2: Storytellers who are singers have always been primary to me from day one, I mentioned Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford and then Streisand and Julie Andrews and Carly Simon. Linda Ronstadt. I knew about them before. I knew about any opera singers. And so I was drawn to tell stories inspired by their voices, the way they inhabited and delivered a song. And I think when I started hearing classical singing and that was in my late teens when I started having actual composition lessons. And I had a great teacher, Ernst Bakan, who wrote a lot for The Voice, and he introduced me to some of these recordings and performances that I I’d never imagined. And suddenly it was the storytelling and the singing. But times. And no microphone, it was just mind blowing, and then when I was 18, I moved to Paris right after high school and lived there for two years and experienced everything I could and heard some of the greatest singers in the world. And that theatricality of their performances just by singing and standing there was incredible. I hadn’t been able to go see Streisand or anyone in concert, you know, otherwise maybe I’d taken a totally different direction. But something resonated deeply within me in terms of that music, that world of music. And so I knew I wanted to write for singers and classical musicians because they had become my heroes. But I didn’t know that I would ever be able to do that as a career. And I was actually moving in that direction in my 20s when I developed a hand injury. I developed what’s called a focal dystonia, so my hands started to curl into a fist. Oh, my goodness. And I knew I had to do something else. And so my entire identity was shattered. I was also struggling with being gay during the peak of the AIDS crisis. So there were a lot of identity crises going on at the same time. And I eventually I did some retraining over years and moved to San Francisco and I got a job at the San Francisco Opera and the PR marketing department and started meeting the greatest singers in the world who lo and behold, are really wonderful, fun people who wouldn’t want to work with them and write for them. And I was inspired anew. And so this idea of being a full time composer that maybe I even deserved that title, which I dealt with so much shame in my teens and 20s that I didn’t think I deserved any of that. So coming around to it psychologically, emotionally, to think of myself as a composer who had something to say and that these singers wanted to champion was extraordinary. It was like waking up and it was a coming out of a different way. You know,
S1: I want to talk and a little bit about recent work of yours, songs from Murdered Sisters, but I was lucky enough to watch a film version of that piece. And of course, you were playing piano. And I’ve heard you play piano on other albums. You recently did an album with Jamie Barton, who was an early guest on working. So I’m mentioning that because you play the piano just beautifully. So I’m gathering that your hand problem fixed itself or how would you describe that?
S2: I would say it didn’t fix itself. I had to retrain pretty rigorously. And it meant starting, though, with scales. I mean, I was twenty eight, twenty nine years old and I had to go back to C major scale, slow, steady, no tension. And the teacher that I was working with said, look, this is going to be hard for you, but you have to be patient. You have to learn this technique, this new technique, and you will never be able to play all the pieces you played before because muscle memory will bring up the problem again. And lucky for me, the piano literature is vast and the song literature is vast. And I write a lot of my own stuff, so I’m not playing something that I played before. Yeah, another reason I wanted to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In addition to that, I love San Francisco was because once you’re identified as an injured musician, it’s very hard to enter that world ever again. And so up in San Francisco, nobody knew me. And when I started playing, nobody questioned, nobody said, oh, I had heard you were injured and now you’re playing again. No one said that. So they just took it at face value. And that was very helpful to me in that period. But great singers started asking me to play for them. I did a lot of concerts with Fredricka Van Stata. I wrote for Renee Fleming, for Dawn Upshaw, for just incredible artists. And they were they were taking me seriously. So I thought I better start taking myself seriously. But it was it was a long haul.
S1: Several of the the people that you named and Jamie Barton, who we talked about earlier, are mezzos. And I know songs from Atwood Sisters is with a baritone. Are there particular voices that you are particularly drawn to or is it just a coincidence that you mentioned various mezzos and so on?
S2: No, I am definitely drawn to the mezzos and I have a feeling it’s because early on the singers that I listen to, Streisand, would be a high mezzo Julie Andrews, this a soprano. But all the musical theater she did was in sort of a mezzo ish range. And same with a lot of the big band singers that I would hear on my dad’s albums, you know, all that was ingrained in me. And and so I’m just naturally drawn to it. Also, what I love about the mezzo voice is throughout the range. You can. Understand the words, they don’t have to sort of manipulate the sound and the vowels as much as, you know, a higher voice types. Same thing with baritones. You know, you hear what the words are throughout the throughout the range. And I don’t know, I’m just really drawn to those voice types. So a lot of my operas feature those voice types prominently and a lot of songs as well, a lot of songs and operas that feature mezzos in particular. I also think I’m I’m a feminist, a die hard feminist. And I was raised around very strong women, especially, you know, like my mother. And so I like featuring strong women in my songs and operas, too. I’m in such awe. And so any chance to work with these powerful, amazing women is is a real joy for me. And I think any project before, if I’m going to say yes, the first thing I need to feel is that shiver of recognition, that shiver, that is music. I don’t know what the music is. I just know it’s there. And it’s at that point that it’s not even that I, I want to write it. I, I have to write this, you know, it goes beyond that. So there’s this sense of passion and possibility that is vibrating in certain projects.
S1: You know, composers of opera art songs typically work with the librettist, the writer of the words. But librettist has to be one of the smaller job pools in the world. I mean, there just aren’t that many people making a living writing libretto. And you’ve worked with some extraordinary writers, novelists, and certainly in the beginning of her career, poet Margaret Atwood, playwright Terrence McNally, you’ve had some remarkable collaborations with. You’ve also, of course, set music to the work of dead poets. Yes. What do you have a theory of what makes a writer a good librettist? Because, you know, Terrence McNally is a playwright. Margaret Atwood is a novelist. How do you know that they’ll produce work that will resonate for you?
S2: It’s an instinct like so much of the arts is is instinct. But also these are people who understand that what they write has to demand music. It has to demand music to be complete, to be told on its own. It doesn’t work. It has to have music to be fully realised. And Terrence McNally, as a great playwright, loved the opera, you know, loved great singers and was a devoted opera goer. And so, you know, and that was my first librettist and that was for Dead Man Walking. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never written an opera. And but he told me very clearly said, look, I’m not a librettist by trade, I’m a playwright. But what I’m going to try to do is give you characters and scaffolding and structure and scenes that inspire you. The goal is to inspire music. He goes, and the libretto is not in shape until you feel inspired to write music. And the music is leading. And he goes, and when the music is leading, that might mean a lot of things need to change. And he said, I’m flexible. Change the words, change the scene. If something isn’t singing, that means we need to cut it and find something else. But the goal is for the music to lead. And I thought that was incredibly generous and also inspiring and liberating for me. It meant I could really just let my imagination go wild. I think a bad libretto is one where the librettist says, here are the words, this is it. Set this, that’s it, period. And that that’s not a collaboration. And that’s not what opera is. That’s not what theater is. Theatre is all about collaboration. And the people that I find that I work with, they inspire me and make my work better. I think, and I hope I do the same for them. I also work very closely with a man named Gene Scheer, who we’ve written, I don’t know, seven, six operas together, seven operas together, full length ones, and then some short ones and like fifty songs. And there’s a momentum you develop as a creative team. You know that there’s a reason Rodgers and Hammerstein kept writing together because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. And there’s so much that is uncertain when you begin a project that to have as many certain things in place as possible is enormously helpful because it’s terrifying. It’s supposed to be terrible.
S1: Yeah, right. Exactly.
S3: We’ll be back with more of Jones conversation with the composer Jake Heggie after this. Every week on working, we talk to interesting people about their jobs, but one of our goals for the show is to help our listeners, meaning you, with your own creative processes. Ask us about anything getting inspired, getting paid, getting better at whatever it is you do. You can reach us at working at Slate Dotcom or leave us a message at three zero four nine three three work. If you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s hear more of John’s conversation with composer Jake Heggie.
S1: Let’s talk about this amazing work, songs for Murdered Sisters. Well, first of all, why don’t you tell us what that project is about and why you were drawn to it?
S2: Perhaps we were in the process of rehearsing a new opera five years ago in Houston at the Houston Grand Opera called Based On It’s a Wonderful Life. And Joshua Hopkins was had a role in it, Harry Bailey. And he pulled me aside and asked if we could have lunch and he could talk to me about something. And I said, sure. And he’s a baritone that I really, really admire, a beautiful voice and a beautiful soul. And he said, OK, so a year ago, my sister was murdered by her ex the same day that he went on a rampage and murdered all three of his exes in Canada. And I was devastated to hear it. And he said, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what I can do. Because you’re frozen, she’s gone. The murderer is being tried now what now what do I do? And he said, I feel like I need to use my creative and personal voice to speak out about what happened, because gender based violence, domestic violence is rampant everywhere, of course. But what could he do to make a difference? And so I said, I’m all in with you. I’m very inspired. I’m very moved by your story. We’re going to need new texts. I don’t know what this piece is going to be, whether it’s sort of a one act opera or is it a big song cycle, what is it? But we need a brilliant writer to take us on this journey. And it should be a Canadian woman since we are two men and we want all the perspective represented. And I said and I encourage you to think big. And he said, well, what do you mean? I said, I don’t know. Margaret Atwood k.d. lang, you know, think about people like this, you know, because he initially had suggested he had this friend of a friend who writes poems. And I was like, no, no, no. We need if you want to make a big statement, let’s think really big. And so he got connected with Margaret, Atwood and suddenly we were exchanging emails. It was bizarre. How am I exchanging e-mails with Margaret Atwood? Because I’m a huge fan of hers. She is a genius, first class, just incredible. And so this is about a year on from when we had that first conversation and she’s writing. Well, I’m interested. I’m not saying that I’m doing it, but shouldn’t there be a female voice involved? And I and we went back
S1: and forth and I said,
S2: yeah, literally a singer. And I said, well, think of vintage Reisa, Schubert’s Winterreise, you know, someone on a winter’s journey trying to make sense of all the lost that they feel and they look to nature. They look inward, they look around them, and everything is resonating in a different way. I said that’s sort of Joshua journey without his sister losing his sister in this violent, awful way. Could I have done something? Could what could I have done? What could I do now? And then all of a sudden she writes back, Well, I’m not saying that I’m doing it, but there were several of those. And then finally one night she said, well, I’m not saying I’m doing it, but what about something like this? And there were these eight lyric poems that I read through them. And I was shaking and sobbing and I called Josh and he was shaking and sobbing and we wrote back to her. Yes, something like that.
S1: Well, now I’m curious because you get eight poems that are incredibly moving from Margaret Atwood. But are the words of songs from her two sisters the same as what came in in that email or did they change? Did you edit Margaret? Atwood.
S2: You know, it’s very interesting. I didn’t have to ask to change a single word. Oh, she is so brilliant. And like I said, what she knew that these were going to be sung. And so she was thinking about how music changes things, how there has to be space just for solo moments, for instrumental moments, that everything she gave me is exactly what I said. I have never had that experience with a living writer. I have always had to ask for change. Yes, I was kind of relieved, actually. How am I going to tell Margaret Atwood? But she she was incredibly collaborative and supportive throughout. And we had a breakfast one day when we all happened to be in Houston and and she read them for me and for Josh. And we you know, we just went from there. I knew Josh’s voice and personality so well. I knew the story and the lyrics that she gave me were so clear and there was so much space for music that I felt very free to explore.
S1: Wow. And were you already thinking. In whatever way you think about composing music before you got the words, or did that only begin once you had those eight poems in hand?
S2: Well, I certainly was curious. See, the thing is, I had the shiver because I knew the project was incredibly important. And so with Margaret, the vibration was already there for something with great potential and beauty and power. And when I got it, that’s when the music started to unfold and reveal itself to me. And that’s kind of what it’s like. It reveals itself. I just listen.
S1: And why do we listen to the first piece from Songs for Murdered Sisters? Heggie. So my sister. Is no, I’m pretty sure.
S4: There’s an. There’s no longer.
S1: Well, that’s really lovely. Now, this piece is something that’s super personal to Joshua Hopkins, and it’s about his sister. Were you writing specifically for him or for a sort of generic baritone since I assume that at some point other people will be singing that or or did you create this exclusively for Joshua? And he’s the only person you have who loves singing?
S2: Oh, no. It’s meant to be a universal experience. But the only way you can create that is by making it very specific. I have found and this is our version of the setting of these poems, if someone else eventually wants to try setting those poems and Margaret is open to it, then yes, another vision of those will happen. But who knows what, whether a piece will have a life or not. So, you know, we don’t get to decide that. Other people get to decide that. So making it the best it can be and writing it with great clarity for the person who will first inhabit it is everything I have to say. When I’m writing operas, I’m writing the role, but I know who I’m dressing it on for the first time. And so this is kind of a role for Joshua, even though it’s the it is him and it’s his personal journey. But, you know, Margaret invented these things. She didn’t you know, Joshua didn’t write it. Margaret wrote it. So again, there’s another perspective coming in. But to make it as personal as possible and as vivid as possible for Josh, that means it can be broad. It can be many things for many people.
S1: So this is just one of the many performing arts project that was upended by covid, you know, the piece didn’t premiere in the way that was expected, anticipated. Can you kind of explain how that played out? And were you happy with that method of premiering a major work?
S2: Yes, I finished the songs at the end of February last year and February and 20. Yes, right before. I’m so grateful I did because I actually hit a big roadblock during the middle of last year. I found it very challenging to write anything. So I was really glad I finished those when I did and sent them to Joshua and we were supposed to premiere them in Houston. Houston Grand Opera had commissioned the cycle and we were going to premiere them at the Rothko Chapel down there. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s amazing this never
S2: dark Rothko paintings all over the walls. It’s this amazing meditative space. But it was it became clear that was not going to happen. And they had started, you know, filming things and they wanted to film this. And I thought, if we’re going to do that, I don’t want it just to be piano voice and a stationary camera. Like, I just if we’re going to use visual medium, then let’s use the language of the camera and a film. And so I asked them if I could, you know, work with a local director, Jamie neighbor, who I really believe in. And if we could try to find a way to create like an art film of this, not just a film of a recital, but like an artful presentation of it. And they were all all in. And we found very supportive donors to to help us put it together. And then Jamie had this vision and we used the abandoned train station in Oakland and he brought in a massive crew. I mean, I can’t even tell you how many cameras and lights were there. It was amazing, but it was during covid. So everyone had to be masked and distanced and tested every day. I was thrilled with how it came out. And I don’t ever want to do, you know, a recorded thing another way, because if we’re going to use I’ve seen so many recitals online now, and as grateful as I am for the talent involved, when you’re using a visual medium, you want to use the language of the camera to tell the story to. And I think that’s been a big revelation for opera companies and other other classically based organizations that let the camera do some of the storytelling as well.
S1: So you have composed several operas, six seven, including Dead Man Walking, 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, submitted sisters, which we discussed, and again, I believe is also on that theme. You wrote music about 9/11. No, of course I’m picking selectively from you of. But would it be true to say that you’re drawn to big, heavy themes?
S2: 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, things that feel 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 and that sort of the line. For me, I big transformative events, intimate stories with large forces at work that are beyond our control. I find those very, very inspiring and certainly operatic. And when I’m also when I’m writing, you know, especially I write a lot for singers. Of course, mostly 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, you know,
S1: does that limit the kinds of moods that you can work in? I mean, levity and fun and silliness or of course, a huge tradition in opera. You know, the just the weird you know, there’s a lot of Farson opera. And I I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen a dead man walking, but I’m having a hard time picturing a lot of levity.
S2: And yet there is because that’s very human. That’s very human. And that’s when, you know, it puts the audience at ease. It puts the characters on stage. It is. And it’s just natural to go to humor in very difficult moments. You know, one of my heroes, Stephen Sondheim, is genius at this. You know, when things are really dark, suddenly there’s 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 he’s remembering playing with his sister and. All the fun that they had and calling out to each other, and it is.
S4: I don’t know if you your.
S2: Am I doing. 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.
S1: Yeah, I mean, also not to get too personal after what you told me about your father, that has to be like that’s more than just a casual storyline to you, right?
S2: Oh, yeah, I, I can write from personal experience big issues like this. Yeah. They speak to me. I mean I’ve lived through them and maybe it’s my own way of processing and working it out. But you know, I don’t know that there’s so much of that because I love every single character. I have to be every character. Yeah. 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 at the same with, like a convicted murderer or a one legged sea captain. You know, I haven’t been any of those things, but, you know, not yet. Right? Yeah, it’s and yet it’s because it’s a human story. It’s a human experience. It’s a human being. And my job as a theater composer is to empathize and listen and respond. And 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 anyone. I am enormously grateful when the big tune emerges and I will maximize that victory. But it’s usually in the moment I do get a lot of ideas just walking a walk a lot all over San Francisco. And so I’ll sing ideas into my phone when they come to me. But part of it is showing up every day and just listening to these characters and letting the letting them tell me how they want it to go.
S1: That’s amazing. I have to tell you to because we talk every week to people about their creative process. So many people talk about singing into their phone. I swear that what did people do before people could sing into their phone?
S2: I had actually a little portable recorder I could carry around. I remember the days of the Walkman and the and even before then, they were like little little recorders you could carry around. But yeah, I’ve always been singing into something Jake Heggie.
S1: Thank you so much. It’s been great to talk with you.
S2: Great to be with you today, June. Thank you.
S3: June, at this point in my tenure on this show, you’d think that I would stop marveling at how I find hearing artists talk about their work informs how I think about my own. I mean, in some ways, that’s sort of the crux of our entire show. However, I don’t do anything like composing. But I was so struck by hearing Heggie speak of the necessity for him of making his notations by hand instead of a computer. Music is tactile, is what he said. And though I write on a computer, I also often write with my hands and I certainly revise with my hands. And I kind of know just what he means when he says that it’s only when you’re working with your hands that you can see what’s wrong with the work.
S1: Yeah, I also was really struck by that. I’m a great lover of analog tools myself, and so I could really relate to that observation. I think he said that making a mess is central to creativity. And in my head at least, that feels really relevant because when I’m trying to write something, the fact that a messy first draft looks really similar on the screen of my laptop anyway, to finish work that’s been refined and edited and gone through like a million revisions, it makes it really hard for me to just get that first version of my head. It just never seems quite good enough. So I find it easier to have that first struggle on paper somehow seeing all those false starts and crossing’s and all that. You know, the working out of things makes me feel better about the ideas and the way that I’m trying to shape them. And I mean, I love the convenience of the computer, not only for what I guess we used to call word processing, but for, you know, keeping track of ideas and thoughts and everything. But I do admire Jake for his all analog stance. That’s pretty bold.
S3: At the same time, we hear him talk about his relationship to his phone as a tool for kind of capturing stuff on the fly. So it’s not that he has some kind of line in the sand that, like creative work, can never involve these tools. And I appreciate that balance, too, but that when it comes to really putting the notes down on the paper, he needs to be doing that with his hand. There’s something there. There’s a resonance there. I sort of understood it.
S1: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, actually. Yeah. He’s not that he’s a Luddite. That’s clearly not the case. It’s just that he just likes that, that physical. And I love to hearing the story about like when he was a kid finding manuscript paper and learning that, no, you can write this yourself like this.
S3: I know that was a very sweet story. That is a very sweet story. Heggie said one other thing that I found really meaningful, that so much of the arts is about instinct, and I really think that’s right. And this is something that I think Isaac and I have talked about so many times, that what education in the arts is mostly about is to help establish or fortify your own instinct.
S1: Yeah, I loved how he described the kind of buzz that he gets when he finds something that he knows he’s going to enjoy working on. I mean, I guess that he’s excited and he’s enthused about something. I guess you’re going to spend a ton of time on it, right? You have to feel that connection. And that is indeed instinct. But it also comes from experience, from having written a lot of music, from having worked through problems, from having collaborated with lots of different people who each work in distinct ways. So, yeah, it’s a buzz. But that instinct really works because you’ve already done the work.
S3: It’s a muscle that you cross. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yes. I think it was obviously key in a conversation with a composer to hear a bit of the music. And I really was moved by hearing even just a bit of songs from our ancestors. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to collaborate with Margaret Atwood, but I really appreciated Jake sense when they were talking about when he and his collaborator were talking about the search for a librettist to truly think big. Right. It doesn’t get much bigger than Margaret Atwood. It’s such a gutsy move, but it paid off.
S1: Yeah, no kidding. It really does sound like actionable advice. Like you have to have faith in yourself and the story you want to tell to reach out to someone whose work you just know is going to elevate a project. But I also have to say, I do think it’s important to be realistic, like, by all means, think big, but don’t waste your time. You know, keep your ambition within the realm of possibility.
S3: Of course. I mean, he couldn’t have sent a note to Margaret Atwood, you know, at the beginning of his career before you ever written a song. But, you know, he has reached a point where he can make those kinds of connections and he knows it. And I think that that’s really I like that advice and I like that kind of confidence.
S1: Absolutely. Absolutely.
S3: You raised such an interesting point in this interview that the work songs. Murdered sisters is so deeply personal that it feels that it could only be sung by Joshua Hopkins, who’s, you know, because it tells the story of his own relationship with his own sister. I was so struck by what Heggie said in response that the key to a universal subject is its specificity, that in telling the story of one man’s grief in this very particular set of circumstances, he created something, a work of art that actually opens up to an audience. And that’s what great art ought to do.
S1: Yeah, I love that, too. There’s something really striking about the way he put it. He can’t write an opera about the death penalty. You can’t write a song cycle about intimate partner violence. But he’s inspired by stories about people whose lives are affected by those big issues. And he can write about that. And that’s a really great way of thinking about creative writing, about really big subjects, like it has to be quite specific or else it’s just too big to contemplate.
S3: Yeah, even even Steinbeck didn’t just set out to write a novel of the Great Depression, right? He set out to write a novel of a single family. And that sort of makes it easier for you to think about tackling it. Yeah. June, I know that you’re just back from vacation. Isaac is going on holiday soon. It’s still a strange and uncertain time, but maybe that means we all need a break all the more. I’m wondering about how you use your time away, your time off the clock, whether you ignore your email or whether you catch up on your work. You know, whether you spent some time thinking about the book you recently announced or just reading romance novels on the beach.
S1: The book I’m writing, do you mean where are all the lesbians? A cultural history in six places available from SEAL Press in spring 2024. I did indeed sell that right before my vacation. So I was thinking about it a lot and partly because we were in Provincetown, which is an example of one of the places I’ll be covering. So I was in, I guess you could call it field observation mode, but I think the working from home era actually had even more of an impact on how I spent my vacation. I usually do do a little bit of work, you know, just check slack or just kind of take a look at my email. But even though I’ve been very lucky over the last year and working from home has been easy for me and actually kind of preferable in some ways, like it’s easier for me to concentrate, but it did blur the separation between work and the rest of life. You know, if you don’t have a commute, you don’t leave the house. It’s just easy to feel that every waking minute is about work. So for that reason, I did make more of an effort not to look at all those things while I was on vacation. And that was great, even though it meant that catching up even after just five days away was a bit of a beast. There was a lot that had built up over those days.
S3: We have a distorted relationship to work in this country that we really do. And, you know, you know, I get that you have a big job and you’re in demand person inside of Slate. But, you know, it should be part of the natural rhythms of our working lives that sometimes we’re away and we need a day to catch up on whatever we missed while we were away.
S1: Absolutely. I mean, there’s some I’m still very European in my love of vacations. It’s just. Oh, my God. Like and it’s terrible when you’re on vacation to think, oh, but if I don’t look, it’s going to be so awful when I get back. But you just have to kind of work through that eventually at least, and just be prepared for that big catch up. Now, before we sign off today, Rumaan, you strike me as the perfect person to answer a question we received from listener Michael Starr. Now he wrote this and our producer Cameron Drus is going to read it for us.
S5: Yes. So Michael writes, Good morning, Slate working. Good morning, Michael. He writes, I began attempting to write fiction in graduate school. And after several years, I felt good enough about my work to attempt publishing. I placed three stories with very small literary magazines in the 90s. While I remain proud of this modest accomplishment, the weight of endless submission and rejection, along with the relentless march of life finally warming down and I stopped submitting stories for publication, I never completely stopped writing creatively, but focused on other aspects of my life for decades. During covid times, I looked back at my stories, many of which I still like. After all of these years, I’ve written a couple new ones as well and believe many of these are worthy of submission. But time and technology have swept along at such a rate that I’m not sure where to start. My last submissions were mailed with essays. Ese, which are self-addressed stamped envelopes, I believe, he says, I see a few webzine accept blind submissions at times, but I wonder if I’m not missing real opportunities to make my work more visible.
S1: Yeah, what do you think? Rumaan Michael also mentioned that he’s a technical writer, so I’m sure he’s capable of figuring out the tech of online submissions. But it is a whole new world. So what do you think? Should he put in the time and effort to submit to publications and are there any resources you can recommend?
S3: You know, I think of this week’s guests uneasy relationship. Oh, right. Like I get it. Technology changes very quickly and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when it involves your creative work. Right. So writing music, using your computer is quite different from making a Facebook account so you can keep in touch with the relatives. Right. And so this note isn’t really about how technology affects the writer’s creative practice. It’s about how it affects the business of being a writer. And I do think that unfortunately, it’s incumbent on most artists save a handful of really successful ones to learn to adapt. You know, you have to unless you are J.K. Rowling or Stephen King with a team of assistants and people who can help you negotiate a changing landscape, you’re on your own. The good news is that it’s really relatively simple. And ask the technology that most literary magazines use to handle submissions was designed for artists. So it’s pretty forgiving. I think it’s thrilling that this writer feels ready to start trying to publish again after a follow up period. And it would be absurd to let a fear over technology nip that dream in the bud. So my advice would be to start reading, you know, the many publications that are new since he was last sending out stories, the ones that are still around, see which ones would be a good fit for your work and figure out how they prefer to look at submissions. I think if you’re going to sort of face your demon with technology, I would also consider making a Twitter account, which sounds really awful. But hear me out like you don’t have to tweet. You can just follow all of these magazines and their editors can follow other writers. You can learn about contests and calls for submissions and team issues and readings and events. I personally have not submitted my own work in a while, but most of the magazines I dealt with, you know, the handful of years ago, which is the last time I did, they all used the same software. And honestly, it’s not rocket science. I mean, I can barely use our Apple TV, like barely my kids get so mad at me because I can barely figure out how to use it. I’m really an idiot when it comes to technology. So if I could figure out this particular program, which is called submittal, I really think anyone can. And then I think you just have to start submitting. You know, the technology might be new, but the sting of rejection and the triumph of publication are going to be just as you remember them, Rumaan.
S1: That is amazing advice, both practical and psychological. That’s right. I hope that helps. Michael, thank you.
S3: I hope so, too. I hope so, too. I don’t think I also think that it’s really worth saying that. I think it’s so exciting that he feels this way about his own work. And the truth is that it’s easy to look at any competitive field and like, look at what’s out there and feel like there’s no place for you. But the people who have found a place there have found it because they insisted on it. Yeah. And that sometimes the insistence is just as simple as saying, I’m going to learn how to submit my stories.
S1: Well, yes, absolutely. That’s that’s a really great point.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed this show, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll never miss an episode and I’m going to give you one final slate. Plus Petch Slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, access to all the articles and sitcom without hitting a paywall. Ever bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danilova is new show Big Mood, Little Mood. But I also hope you’d like to support the work that we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to sitcom slash working.
S1: Plus, thank you to Jake Heggie for being our guest this week. And as always, thanks to our producer, the stupendous Cameron Drus, please make sure to tune in next week for Remans conversation with the artist Shahzia Sikander. Until then, get back to work. Hey, sleepless members, thank you so much for your support. Here are a couple of questions that I asked Jake for your ears only. So opera feels like it’s one of the least accessible cultural forms, at least a lot of people feel intimidated by it or just like, oh God, no, that’s just wailing or whatever. They have an attitude about it. And I think a lot of people just kind of wall it off from their life and probably art song even more. So do you see opera and art song in this this world that you work in as something that anyone can enjoy?
S2: Absolutely. Without hesitation. You know, this is something I think that the opera world has to get more aware of, too. And I think that they have been in terms of reaching out, but also friends, bringing friends to the opera for a great experience. And, you know, if it moves, you bring someone with you, you know, but. Oh, absolutely. I didn’t think I would love opera when I was a kid. I loved musicals. I liked pop and rock musicals. I liked, you know, like all those great singers that I mentioned. But then someone took me to the opera and the top of my head popped up. You know, it felt like that. And then, you know, when I returned to Los Angeles, Sweeney Todd was on tour for the first time with Angela Lansbury. And I saw that. And I thought, I can’t believe that just happened. And then I saw Peter Grimes of Benjamin Britten with the incomparable John Vickers as Peter Grimes. And I saw that. And I just went, OK, we’re just they’re both different experiences, but very similar. I love theater and I love storytelling and I love great singing. And when you get that combination, it’s electrifying. The thing is, you have to be in the room. These things work only to a certain extent online. You know, watching an opera online is not in any way comparable to being in the room and feeling that vibration sharing, that sense of community with all of these people. You don’t know who you’re sitting next to. You don’t know what they believe, how they voted or anything. You just know you’re there to experience this big human drama, whether it’s a comedy or I mean, we all know how fun it is to be in a movie theater and the entire place is roaring with laughter. And you’re part of something. Right? That’s very special. That’s the feeling in the Opera House, except it’s live. It isn’t on a screen. And these people are doing these superhuman, mind blowing, amazing things. They are the bravest people I know are singers. Just how you have the courage to get up there and do this. And they’re really cool, fun people. Yeah. Jamie Barton is awesome. Touristed annatto is awesome. Sasha Cook, all these amazing singers, you know, they’re awesome people and they are just they’re mind blowing what they are able to do up there.
S1: Yeah. Yeah, I know there’s something about the way an opera singer walks onto the stage, especially. It is more of a recital rather than, you know, walk making an entrance and an opera. But just like how they have that level like this, a confidence is the only thing I can compare it to as a bullfighter. You know, this is just like, yeah, I’m going to do this. You ready? Because I’m going to open my mouth in a minute and you are going to lose your shit.
S2: Amazing is absolutely it. And and then, you know, they’ll present a range of songs and and now recitals are so personal. They used to feel a little stiff, but now it’s very common for the singer to talk to the audience, tell them a little bit what they’re going to do. And it feels like an intimate evening of, you know, song and conversation and storytelling. And it’s very, very special. But, yeah, the courage, the level of courage is sort of hard to believe.
S1: So be a little cheeky. The Wall Street Journal described you as the world’s most popular 21st century opera and art song composer. You’re you’re the Beyonce of the opera, basically, but you’re not exactly a household name. And I wonder, do you crave a higher profile, like not only for yourself, but for classical music generally, or do you find your relative relative obscurity liberating?
S2: Oh, I am very happy with the life and career I have. I do not need to be famous. I do want the art form to continue to grow. And I think American art song and opera is in a remarkable period right now. When I composed the score for Dead Man Walking with a libretto by Terrence McNally and it opened in October of 2000, it was maybe one of three new operas that year. Now, twenty one years later, there are dozens being written every year, dozens from every kind of composer, every kind of librettist, all. Kinds of stories, short pieces, long pieces, very intimate ones, things that could be done in an opera house, things that are meant to be done in a garage, things that are meant to be done in a community center or school, things that are meant to be done in outdoor spaces. And I find it incredibly inspiring because there are all these creative people who recognize the power and versatility of that art form and how I mean, it has adapted in one shape or form or another. As long as there have been people we’ve told stories with music in some way, it became formalized as opera, you know, in the sixteen hundreds. But even we don’t do opera the same way we did it back then. The only thing that is consistent is you have to have great singing actors and some kind of a compelling story to engage your audience. Other than that, you can create a lot of different things. I know some pop artists that are trying to write operas now. I know a lot of, you know, jazz people who are interested in writing opera, exploring the form. It’s incredibly versatile and it’s opening up and that’s what I want for it. I want more people to have the opportunity to experience the thing that changed my life. The thing that made my life feel so rich and so full and gave me a path I could never have imagined.
S1: All right, that’s it for this week. Thanks, liquify members. We really appreciate your support. So.