Jake Heggie Squeezes An Opera Out Of A Whale

by Randy Hope

Rage Monthly

Monday February 13, 2012

Jake Heggie's name and face is not immediately recognized by people outside the opera realm. Still, it's likely you might have heard about the work he's done. Heggie's the man credited with breathing the life and soul into operas worldwide. When it comes to the world of opera Heggie's quickly rising to become one of the best contemporary American composers today.

The Rage Monthly hooked the accomplished composer as he'd return home to the city by the bay in between another jet-set jaunt to one of several opera houses he associates with round the world. San Francisco seems to have Heggies heart. It's where he serves as resident composer for the San Francisco Opera and where Dead Man Walking, the first opera Heggie composed with librettist Terrence McNally, premiered in 2000. The opera has since quickly become a masterpiece and is one of the opera world's most performed new works.

Southern California opera aficionados and newcomers alike are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to enjoy the visionary mastermind's work as composer of Moby-Dick, when the opera makes its West Coast Premiere at the San Diego Opera on Saturday, February 18. Establishing himself as a well accomplished composer in the past decade, Heggie is also credited as behind the operas Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, To Hell and Back, For A Look or a Touch, and in the musical scene At the Statue of the Venus. His vocal and stage works have been performed by dozens of international opera companies on five continents, and are championed by beloved singers like Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Ben Heppner, Patti LuPone and Frederica von Stade, to name a few.

As a composer, Heggie is a gripping man with the enormous task of marrying words and music in a grand relationship to tell a compelling love story, filled with dramatically emotional highs and lows, while holding on to hope for triumph and redemption. For anybody attempting to draw parallels, indeed such a role can often be found in variations of melodramas created by many gay men in the community. In Heggie's case, his work as a composer is commissioned for productions on a scale much more grand than any Grindr drama that might have come to mind.

However in the course the conversation with, The Rage Monthly took note of yet another contemporary production the talented artist continually composes. Clearly Heggie is skilled in creating dynamic relationships that have made history on stage. The same holds true for Heggie's personal life, where he and his husband established themselves and obtained what rights they could in the distinguishable honor bestowed upon the "Limited Edition Gays-Circa 2008." Indeed, Heggie counts himself and his husband, who he's still legally married to, among the 18,000 same-sex couples fortunate enough to marry during California's short reign of marriage equality in the summer 2008. In addition to holding the title as each other's husband, the couple is raising a 16-year-old son together.

From head to tail Moby-Dick is a timeless classic many people have a love-hate relationship with. It's also a tale that is overflowing with homoerotic content. How does that transfer to the opera stage?

We wanted to tell a great story. The idea was not to do anything prolific or focus on any particular issue-it was to do whatever necessary to tell the story. I agree that homoeroticism is deeply ingrained into that story. I believe there are even classes on homosexuality and Moby-Dick at universities around the country. Our main goal was to tell the story in such a way in which people are not taken out of the moment or find themselves suddenly thinking, 'Why did that happen?' Rather they're involved in the story and continue to be engaged by the storyline, music and singing. We don't necessarily go to or go from the issue of homoeroticism that is in the book and the story-it is there as well as on stage. It is not something we neither run towards or away from, we just let it be as it is in Melville's story.

How do you think it will be received by the San Diego Opera audience?

It's definitely the strongest piece I've ever written as an individual. It feels deeply personal so that the audience is able to connect with the characters. Also visually, it's so stunning and one of the most attractive operatic productions I've certainly ever seen. Therefore I feel people are going to be really drawn in, I mean, doesn't every like a really great story? Regardless of where it ultimately takes you, if you're engaged, then you'll want to know what happens next and you care about the people involved-everybody loves a great story. We began with great material and wanted to do something original and creative that still honors the author's intention-I think we produced something that is a magical evening for some people where they can be engaged, delighted, intrigued, mystified, entertained, moved, and I think sometimes surprised by the ending.

What do you think surprises people most about this production?

I think they're surprised with it being as intimate as it is within the grand scale, but that's historically what opera does best, to tell very intimate stories whether the sense of larger forces or something much bigger than we are at work. Think of Aida, it's described as the "ultimate grand opera" but realistically it's an intimate drama between a few characters. In any grand opera you can think of, you'll find three or four characters that are in an intimate drama. There seems to be something so vast swallowing them up, we get the sense of grandeur which I feel what Moby-Dick has to offer, a sweeping sense of adventure, grandeur and the vastness of the universe-the world with a very intimate human drama going on in the core of it.

As a gay man and composer of opera who has dissected and interpreted his every thought, did you have a special kind of relationship with Melville's tale prior to jumping into the monumental task?

I think there are many people who are neither gay nor composers who hold a deep connection with Melville's work (chuckles). That's the amazing thing about his work-it is so vast that so many people feel welcomed and embraced as well as identified within it. Whatever your sexual identity or profession may be-I think that's the magic and mystery of great art and literature.

Many people feel embraced and included because it says something larger about humanity. I definitely feel that being a creative artist and composer, as well as a gay American, I have my own connection with it. That doesn't mean it limits anyone else and it certainly doesn't limit the way I approached the piece. That's definitely a general perspective I have on the world-I honestly do not analyze my own work so I don't know if I have a particularly different perspective that you can hear. (Chuckles) I just know that this is the way I write and this is who I am as a person. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't write this way if I weren't the person I am today.

However, not to sound arrogant, I do feel I was on fire when I was writing. I felt great identification with the author-the man himself. I felt deeply connected and times when I found myself weeping as I was writing because I felt so closely connected to the spirit of what he was doing or what he may have been feeling as he wrote. That's part of my job as a composer-to empathize and sympathize with the character and then create spirit behind those characters in which I can hear and feel the music and I felt that throughout the entire piece.

How do you feel Melville would perceive your operatic portrayal of his literary classic?

I have a feeling he would be rather delighted to know that something that was based on his material and inspired by his hard work, has become something which has delighted and entertained a vast number of people in another form than what he originally wrote. I feel that Melville would be delighted and moved that something he created was the inspiration for this new incarnation. Gene and I were both terrified that the Melville scholars would absolutely hate what we did early on-it was quite the opposite. They were thrilled with the fact that we weren't so literal bringing the book to stage, but rather based it on Melville's work and took a different tact, which made me very happy. They've been some of the biggest champions of my work which was quite the opposite of what I had expected.(Chuckles)

Interesting how life works that way. (Chuckles)

Yeah, you just have to do something bold and trust your vision - all you can do is your best in that regard. I feel like we lashed into something very special and the key to that is to treat the book itself as a memoir. One that would be written many years after the actual events so that we can portray the actual events in real time on stage and have this one survivor at the end who calls himself 'Ishmael.' He becomes the person who years later will go on to write the book-and that was tremendously liberating.

A quote from Moby-Dick refers to the marriage between the two men who 'open the very bottom of their souls to each other, [as] old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning.' What would you to say to Melville the man with whom you've had such a romance?

(Chuckles) I guess that would depend on how the romance was going and did we have a good time? (Laughs) Melville describes such a sweet scene and nobody seems to shy away from it. If it were Melville and me in that scene I suppose we'd be having a great time talking about everything under the sun. If could actually sit face to face with Melville in the present day, I would thank him for his bravery and fearlessness for jumping into the fire and placing his stock into the future knowing that he was so far ahead of his time with what he had to say and how he wanted to say it. I'd assure him that he is respected and loved for what he did. Even though it's ahead of your time, thank you for believing that it would find the right ears, the right eyes, the right audience, and remaining true to your vision. I would say that to any visionary artist who died before their work could fully be appreciated.

What can the LGBT community take away this timeless classic turned opera?

I think Melville was very smart in this regard because I am always asked, "What does the white whale represent?" That's the magic of the piece-it's not really about a whale but rather everything that is projected on it, what we think it means. It means something different to everyone who reads the book - fact is it's just a whale. Does it know that all this is being projected on it? No I don't think so-I think it's just a whale. I feel it's the same thing with the opera. We wrote a very human story and we tried to make as real, personal, and authentic as we could while keeping it an adventure and staying true to Melville's vision. Therefore I think it means many things to many people-what we have to decide based on the journey of this particular character, Ishmael, he sees the very best of humanity and the very worst yet still he wants to survive in this world and live to tell more people. What does that mean for all of us when we are a survivor? The connection between Queequeg and Ishmael is very clear, their relationship is deeply emotional and life changing for both of them.

We all have, or hope to have, that connection with someone of some sort of being...

Absolutely! It's what we yearn for. That's the point Melville spoke of and what we picked up in the opera. This character that we really know nothing about goes to sea in the first place because he feels lost, like he has no connection in the world - he's yearning for something. He's yearning for adventure and identification. He goes and finds it with on a ship in the middle of the ocean with who he thinks is the least likely person of all-the one considered a pagan, a heathen from the south, a harpoon in the air, and tattooed head to toe, yet this is the person he identifies with the most. Whatever sense it means he falls in love with him and I think that's deeply meaningful for anyone who reads the book or sees the opera.

What does Moby-Dick have to offer that might attract a new generation of opera-goers?

It feels energetic and somehow there immediate identification with name recognition. When I work on opera projects, one of the things I strive for is that it's something that's going to remain current and something people are going to want to see. I think it was very similar when I wrote Dead Man Walking and there was immediate name recognition. You don't really have to explain what it is, but the focus becomes how it's going to be done. I feel like that kind of question being asked is really valuable and exciting, because it indicates curiosity. So I think what it's done is shown that even today you can take a classic story and show that it's a current story. You can show that it's a story that spans time. It's one a lot of people have a connection with because everybody winds up studying or hearing about it. Or they see one of the terrible movies made of it. (Laughs) For all of these reasons they relate to it.

Moby-Dick is a tale and social commentary about the way individuals view relationships. Do you think that we'll see full marriage equality during our lifetime?

Oh yes! Absolutely. I think it's all headed in that direction. The fact is that there's a younger generation that's coming up and they realize that there are other people who they know-whether a family member or friend, neighbor or coworker-gay people really do exist and they deserve the right to marry just the same as anyone. I do not see any reason why it would not move in that direction. I do think it will take a while, but not all that long. It's already moved much faster than many of us in our life, especially when you consider Stonewall was just a little more than 40 years ago. The elimination of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was huge. It was much, much bigger than anyone could have ever realized, because now you're not allowed to discriminate in the Army. It will just ripple from there. It's unacceptable and you're not allowed to do it. That's how it should be for everyone and I think we'll get there.

Tickets to Moby-Dick start at $50. Great deals on three or four-opera subscriptions for the 2012 International Season are still available. Subscriptions range from $120 to $1,100 and can be purchased by calling 619.533.7000 or at sdopera.com.

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