An Affair to Remember

Classic Arts Features   An Affair to Remember
Charlene Baldridge catches up with the composer of Houston Grand Opera's world premiere, The End of the Affair.

When he first started writing The End of the Affair, opera composer Jake Heggie, like all the men in the Graham Greene novel upon which it is based, was in love with Sarah. "She's so operatic, so full of mystery," Heggie says. Even though she's having a torrid extramarital affair, "she possesses a sort of goodness and vulnerability."

The men who love Sarah are her cordial yet remote husband, Henry; her lover, Bendrix; a private detective named Parkis; a rationalist named Richard Smythe; and, if pre-pubescent men count, Parkis's son, Lancelot. The plot and characters may sound familiar to moviegoers who saw Neil Jordan's 1999 film with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, or Edward Dmytryk's original 1955 version with Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr.

Set in 1944 during the London Blitz, Heggie's opera begins in Bendrix's flat. As their ecstatic lovemaking concludes, a bombing raid commences, and Bendrix descends the stairs to see if the path is clear to the basement. There is a direct hit and, apparently, he is killed. Sarah throws herself on her knees and bargains with God for Bendrix's life. If he is saved, she will end the affair. After a time, Bendrix stumbles into the room and Sarah says, "You? Oh, God, you're alive." Thus ends the affair. But there are more miracles to come.

"It doesn't get much more operatic than that!" exclaims Heggie, who admits that as he wrote he became more and more angry with Sarah. "She is enlightened and should look after those who are not," he observes. "She is absorbed in her own path."

Ultimately, Heggie forgave his heroine. "She doesn't know what to do with the light she's found," he explains. "I think it scares her. The story is so deeply human. These are not superhumans, just regular people suddenly confronted with a world torn apart."

Written on a smaller scale than Dead Man Walking, Heggie's immensely successful first opera, The End of the Affair deals with equally enormous and similar themes‹forgiveness, faith, redemption, and what Heggie says is "the deep need to connect with something greater than ourselves."

"The music is lyrical, singable, and jazz influenced," he says. "I even have a fox-trot, swing-type tune because that kind of music was so popular at the time in London. It's a more chromatic language than I've used, a bit denser but still very tonally based. I've pushed the singers a little harder in terms of vocal range and flexibility. Like Dead Man Walking," he continues, "it's a nonstop piece. It just goes, like someone shoots off a pistol and says, 'Go! Take this journey right to the finish.'"

Although his own story is rather phenomenal as well, Heggie's transformation to opera composer could not be termed an overnight success. The composer, who turns 43 soon after the premiere of The End of the Affair, paid his dues.

As a youngster in Ohio, he began piano lessons at 5 or 6 and was composing when he was 11. "Simplicity be damned," he recalls. "I was impressed with late Beethoven and Liszt, so I wrote big piano compositions with lots and lots of notes."

When he was 16, Heggie's family moved to California's Contra Costa County. He studied privately with Ernst Bacon, who introduced him to the joys of working with text, notably by poet Emily Dickinson. Heggie aspired to be a concert pianist, but he also dreamed of writing songs for Barbra Streisand. Having wowed audiences at his high school with a performance of Grieg's Concerto set for concert band and piano, the young performer studied at the Paris Conservatory for several years. Then he entered the University of California-Los Angeles as a piano major and emerged with a degree in composition, largely due to the influence of Johana Harris, widow of composer Roy Harris. Johana became Heggie's mentor, soul mate, and wife. They toured internationally as duo pianists for ten years. She died in 1995.

The commissioning of Dead Man Walking came about through amazing circumstances. Recovering from a hand injury that hindered his pianism, Heggie took a job as a writer in the public relations department of San Francisco Opera. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade was in rehearsal there for the world premiere of Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons. Already acquainted with the diva, Heggie gave her several of his folksong settings as an opening night gift. Von Stade became Heggie's champion. He accompanied her in concerts and she commissioned more songs from him, singing some of them at a San Francisco Opera fund-raiser. Not long afterward Lotfi Mansouri, then the SFO's general director, called Heggie into his office and asked, "Have you ever considered writing an opera? I've got someone I want you to meet."

That someone proved to be Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who came up with the idea of making an opera of Dead Man Walking, which is now performed and acclaimed internationally, much to Heggie's delight. In Australia last August the first international production elicited excitement and intensity comparable to that of the work's 2000 premiere in San Francisco. "It was so gratifying to see it work in another country," the composer says. "Now it's been picked up by Calgary, Dresden, and Vienna. You can't ask for more than that."

Even prior to the premiere of Dead Man Walking Houston Grand Opera General Director David Gockley and Music Director Patrick Summers (who conducted Dead Man Walking) approached Heggie about writing his second opera for them. The librettist for the new work is playwright Heather McDonald, perhaps best known for her poetic An Almost Holy Picture, which played to appreciative audiences on Broadway in 2002.

After its world premiere in Houston, The End of the Affair will also be staged by co-producers Opera Pacific and Madison Opera. Meanwhile, Heggie is working on "an almost-a-musical" with Terrence McNally.

"We have other projects in mind, too," he reveals, "among them a great, big, huge opera we've been talking about for three years. That will probably be my last opera because I want to blend my experience in the opera with my love of musical theater and see what happens. I've been very, very lucky. No one's more aware of that than I. I could never have anticipated a career or a life like this. I don't take anything for granted."

Charlene Baldridge is a San Diego-based writer, critic, and essayist who specializes in arts and culture.

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