20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Composer Jake Heggie

Classic Arts Features   20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Composer Jake Heggie
Composer Jake Heggie - perhaps best known for his milestone piece Dead Man Walking - is currently hard at work on Moby Dick, which is set to premiere at Dallas Opera in 2010 with Ben Heppner slated to star as Captain Ahab. Heggie recently took a moment to contribute to our newest Q&A series.

Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking, a collaboration with librettist Terrence McNally, is a milestone in contemporary opera. Since its premiere in 2000, the work has become one of the opera world's most performed new works. In addition to his other operas, the San Francisco-based Heggie is a prolific songwriter whose works have been performed and recorded by some of the most beloved singers of our time, most notably Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone and Joyce DiDonato.

As a pianist he has accompanied several of these same singers in recital. Though best known for his richly nuanced and emotional resonant vocal works, he has also composed many chamber and orchestral works. He is currently at work with librettist Gene Scheer on a truly epic project: an opera based on Melville's Moby Dick, commissioned by Dallas Opera for its inaugural season in the Winspear Opera House in April 2010. The great Canadian tenor Ben Heppner will star as the obsessed whale hunter Captain Ahab.

A person of great warmth and eloquence, with a deep concern for important social issues, Heggie begins the new season with a gala on September 26 at Opera Colorado, where he and Frederica von Stade will perform a program that includes a number of his works. Other fall highlights include opening night of the Broad Theater in Santa Monica, where he will join Frederica von Stade and Kristin Clayton for the Los Angeles premiere of At the Statue of Venus, another of his collaborations with McNally (Oct 11); the premiere of his choral work Faith Disquiet by the Choral Arts of Seattle (Town Hall, Oct 17), the Los Angeles premiere by Seattle's Music of Remembrance of Heggie & Scheer's For a Look or a Touch at the Broad Theater in Santa Monica (December 4); the East Coast premiere of Heggie & Scheer's For a Look or a Touch at the Eastman School of Music (Dec 10, 12 14) and the West Coast premiere of Heggie & Scheer's opera Three Decembers in a co-production by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, starring Frederica von Stade, Kristin Clayton and Keith Phares, conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Leonard Foglia (Dec 11, 12, 14).


1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

A few!?!? That's cruel. Bach St. Matthew Passion, B Minor Mass; Britten Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, War Requiem and Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Ravel Scheherezade and Duo for Violin & Cello; Verdi La traviata and Otello; Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto; Mendelssohn Octet and Violin Concerto; Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Fourth Symphony and Motets; Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Clarinet Concerto, CosÐ fan tutte, and Requiem; Schumann Piano Quintet and Kreisleriana; Poulenc Clarinet Sonata; Debussy Pell_as et M_lisande, La Mer, and late sonatas; Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta; Chopin F minor Ballade and Barcarolle; Peter Lieberson Neruda Songs; Ricky Ian Gordon The Grapes of Wrath; John Adams A Flowering Tree; Mahler R‹ckert Lieder.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

My 78s of Johana Harris playing the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in 1936; Guiomar Novaes playing Chopin's E minor Piano Concerto (the slow movement!); Kathleen Ferrier singing Mahler and Folk Songs; Janet Baker singing Scheherezade; Frederica von Stade singing Chansons d'Auvergne; Susan Graham singing Les Nuits d'Ete; Joyce DiDonato singing my own The Deepest Desire; Trevor Pinnock leading Simon Standage and the English Concert in Vivaldi's Four Seasons; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Bach Cantatas and Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs.

3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

kd lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel; Audra McDonald Happy Songs; Getz/Gilberto; Dawn Upshaw I Wish It So and Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke, Eileen Farrell I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues; Bette Midler sings the Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee songbooks; Billie Holiday Lady in Satin; Lily Tomlin This is a Recording; Joni Mitchell Blue; Barbra Streisand's early recordings; Rufus Wainwright Want One; Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett at Carnegie Hall; Alice Ripley & Emily Skinner Duets; Madeleine Peyroux Half the Perfect World, Careless Love, Dreamland.

4. Music that makes you cry _ any genre:

kd lang singing Jane Siberry's "The Valley"; slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and slow movement of the Jupiter Symphony; "Crucifixus" from Bach's B Minor Mass; Schubert's C Major Cello Quintet; Ennio Morricone's score for Cinema Paradiso; Earle Hagan's Harlem Nocturne; Getz/Gilberto The Girl From Ipanema with Astrid Gilberto singing; the opening and closing choruses of the St. Matthew Passion; Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson singing her husband's music; Frederica von Stade singing "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"; Kathleen Ferrier singing "Blow the Wind Southerly".

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer(s):

Frankly, just about every American concert and theater composer you could name and not name. And why has Roy Harris disappeared? His early chamber music is astonishing and original _ especially his Piano Quintet.

6. Possibly overrated works(s) or composer(s):

In a world where everybody knows Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, how on earth could you consider any composer overrated? Composers in general aren't rated enough _ or at all. Ask a room full of high school students or even college students to name 10 American composers of concert music ... five? ... one? Good luck!

7. Live music performance(s) you attended _ any genre _ you'll never forget:

Opening night of Dead Man Walking in San Francisco; being onstage as page-turner at concerts by Leontyne Price, Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Cecilia Bartoli, Renata Scotto, Jean-Philippe Collard, Itzhak Perlman; watching Bernstein conduct Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony; Patti LuPone in Gypsy; Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall; Boulez conducting Jan DeGaetani in Schoenberg's Erwartung; Radu Lupu playing Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto; Artur Rubinstein farewell concert in Columbus, Ohio when I was 15; Johana Harris farewell recital at UCLA; Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as Octavia in Poppea; Susan Graham as Iphigenie; Ben Heppner as Lohengrin; Frederica von Stade as Cherubino, Cenerentola, Melisande; Joyce DiDonato's first Rosenkavalier; Ren_e Fleming and Placido Domingo in Otello; Die Frau Ohne Schatten conducted by Dohnanyi; MTT conducting San Francisco Symphony in Bernstein Dances from West Side Story; Bette Midler on New Years' Eve in San Francisco.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

Little Miss Sunshine, The Devil Wears Prada, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blades of Glory, The Triplets of Belleville, Huit Femmes, Everything is Illuminated,

9. A few films you consider classics:

Cinema Paradiso, Moonstruck, Auntie Mame, The Times of Harvey Milk, Room at the Top, Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources, The Women.

10. A few books that are important to you (and why):

Susan Jacoby The Age of American Unreason _ for its incredible insight and historical perspective on how we got into this huge mess;

Annie Dillard The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being and Holy the Firm _ because she asks the questions I torture myself with and finds a searing, brutal and poetic look into the universe and the human heart;

David Sedaris Barrel Fever _ because I laugh out loud every time at the Christmas Letter and the SantaLand Diaries;

David McCullough John Adams _ the first time American history came to vivid life for me;

Herman Melville Moby Dick _ because there is more there than you can ever fathom;

Shel Silverstein The Giving Tree _ because it makes me sob every time I read it to a child;

Raymond Carver's collected short stories and poetry _ harsh and humorous truth;

Emily Dickinson's collected poems _ because they remain some of the most pithy and contemporary observations of the world and the human psyche;

Mary Oliver New and Selected Poems _ wow

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you're most proud of:

That I was smart enough to find my way to San Francisco, to Curt and Grayson, and a life in music; that I'm a good friend and colleague; that I manage to pick myself up and work even harder when slammed; oh hell, that I work damn hard at all of it.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you're embarrassed by:

My lifelong body shame! Procrastinating until I make myself crazy. Spending way too much time at the computer.

13. Three things you can't live without:

Family. Friends. Music.

14. "When I want to get away from it all I..."

Go to the beach. Or dream about going to the beach.

15. "People are surprised to find out that I..."

...am actually an intensely shy and private person who is very hard on himself.

16. "My favorite cities are..."

San Francisco. Venice. Paris. New York. So far...

17. "I have a secret crush on..."

If I tell you then it won't be a secret, right? My lips are sealed.

18. "My most obvious guilty pleasure is..."

A cappuccino addiction.

19. "I'd really love to meet..."

Barack Obama. Michelle Obama. I mean, wow.

20. "I never understood why..."

...people will cave into fear and vote or work against their better interests and against the better interests of their community. And I will never understand how some parents can shun their children and turn their backs on them forever. I hate hypocrisy.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer):

Q: "Jake, would you like to work with me to get music back into the core curriculum of American schools?"

A: Yes, President Obama, it would be an honor to work with you and this country's legions of astonishingly gifted composers, performers, teachers, and administrators to make sure music is a central part of every child's development and education.


For more about the composer-

Heggie's recent PlaybillArts Feature piece (written for Houston Grand Opera): "First, the Words"

A March 2008 PlaybillArts Feature interview in which Heggie and Gene Scheer discuss the development of Moby Dick: "From the Beginning"

Visit the Jake Heggie Official Website

Past installments of 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS:

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

Pianist David Greilsammer


Albert Imperato, a music promoter who co-founded 21C Media Group in January 2000, writes frequently about the arts for various publications and blogs. 

His new series, 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS, is his take on (and nod to) Vanity Fair's "Proust Questionnaire."

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