A Composer Improvises : A Conversation with Jake Heggie

Since being profiled in this magazine eight years ago as “A Singer’s Composer,” Jake Heggie’s star has continued to rise. These days, his best-known work, the opera Dead Man Walking, is receiving performances all over the world, and new works premier at an astounding pace. 

In our hour-long interview, Heggie displays none of the intellectual standoffishness many artists cultivate. There is no air of “I am an artist, not a fan.” Heggie’s musical crushes are passionate, and he is at least as eager to discuss the work of others as he is his own. The day we meet, he is singing the praises of a young dramatic soprano named Felicia Moore, whom he heard at a recent masterclass he gave. “She sang ‘Do Not Utter a Word’ from Vanessa,” he says, “and it was as searing and beautiful as listening to a recording of Eleanor Steber or Leontyne Price.” 

When asked which five operas a singer should study, Heggie can’t keep to that number but does his best with the impossible question. “One Handel,” he says. (He loves Semele but says to choose something for your voice type.) “One Mozart.” (Not “Flute” but rather “Così” or “Figaro.”) 

For number three, he recommends an early Bel Canto. “Bellini, Donizetti, or early Verdi,” he says, to understand the vocal lineage. “I always laugh when a composer says they are worried about writing something too difficult for the singer. You look at what they ask the voice to do; it’s insane. An awareness of Strauss is important,” he adds, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

“Debussy is important harmonically because he was bending how the voice is used and what’s underneath it,” he says, “and the use of language has a speech-like patter.” For more modern fare, Janáček fills out the roster. “There is so much you can learn from his operas on how he used the voice.” 

And Britten’s Peter Grimes is a pinnacle. “I remember when I first heard it,” he says. “It was John Vickers in 1984 in L.A. when the olympics were there. Also, I had just heard Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. That all these things were possible on the lyric stage really blew my mind.” 

The composer’s day begins with a walk from home to his regular coffee place, where he grabs his all-important fuel and appreciates the relative low-key anonymity of San Francisco. “They know I write music,” he says of his local baristas, “but they don’t really know what kind or what it means.” Coffee in hand, he continues to a studio he has rented for 14 years. The garage-level space in an old Victorian was originally soundproofed for percussion. 

“I can write or not—no one will know,” he says. “What was it Hemingway said?” The exact quote he is searching for is this: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” 

Heggie writes his scores by hand, scans them, and off to the copyist they go—leaving him free from the curse/blessing of modern composing software. Judging by the quantity and diversity of his output, the system works for him. Instead of worrying about computer bugs, Heggie is thinking in notes and does his best to keep the background noise to a minimum. 

When we meet on a sunny June day outside the War Memorial Opera House, we chat for a bit about word games. Heggie and I have both recently become addicted to the New York Times “Spelling Bee,” but Heggie is giving it up. “I found that in the back of my mind I was thinking about the game instead of working on music,” he admits. 

The War Memorial is a second home to Heggie, the stage his living room TV. He attends everything and thrives on the sense of community. I saw him there the other night. Like much of the audience, he was walking about a foot off the ground at the intermission of a transcendent performance of Rusalka. I once saw him kneel at Sondra Radvanovsky’s feet backstage after a stunning performance in Roberto Devereux

It is no surprise he seems well liked, but Heggie is a bit wary of the word nice. “Nice people will say whatever you want to hear,” he says. “A kind person tells you the truth in a kind way. I always worry when people say, ‘Oh, you’re so nice!’” 

His personability is not automatic. He says he’s worked at it. Heggie describes himself as shy. “A true introvert who walks around with crushing self-doubt,” he laughs, “like everybody.” 

As we settle into the opera’s press room, Heggie looks well rested and says he is glad that we waited to have our interview this week. He has a new work in rehearsal. If I Were You is a commission for the San Francisco Merola Opera Program and a collaboration with his longtime librettist Gene Scheer. And the OPERA America conference just wrapped up in San Francisco, making for a busy week. 

Heggie spoke on the conference’s opening panel, stressing two main points. First, the need to bring music education back into the schools and, second, that the opera world must cultivate and make the most of its dynamic celebrities. “The situation we’re in, I don’t propose to have the answers—but we do need to develop those star singers because opera is about singing,” he says. “We need some pop culture savvy.” 

Heggie fell in love with singing as a child, listening to Julie Andrews. Growing up in Ohio, Broadway musicals and film scores were paramount. Heggie was a serious film buff early on, even saving up to buy his own projector. Later, he received an overwhelming transmission of vocal wisdom while at UCLA in the 1980s, turning pages at the recitals of some of the greatest singers of the era: Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto, Tatiana Troyanos, and Montserrat Caballé. Backstage Heggie spent time with them and their pianists. 

Among the people Heggie got to know between page turns were composer Ned Rorem and collaborative pianist Roger Vignoles, both of whom asked Heggie to send them some of his songs, which he did. Both men gave him the same feedback: he was being too reverent with the text. They couldn’t tell how he felt about it as a composer. 

“Why is the Schubert setting of [Der] Erlkönig the most successful?” Heggie asks. “Because he messes with the text. He stretches and pulls at it and abuses it with character. You know how he feels about that text. That was a real ‘Ah ha!’ for me. 

“I respect writers so much. I was setting Dickinson, but I realized you’ve got to mess with it, or why bother? What is the point of setting it? Why not just recite it? What do you want as a performer or as a composer? 

“What is the ache in the middle of it that is causing you to declaim it in a different way? I think that is good advice for singers, too. How do you feel about this? What do those words mean to you? 

“What do those notes mean to you? What does that rest mean to you? Why do you think that is there? How do the words and music fit together, and what does it mean to you?” 

Advertisement (article continues below):

Heggie frequently gives masterclasses for singers but also works to educate composers, even feeling the need to cover such basics as the difference between range and tessitura. “I don’t think there’s a person who would write a flute concerto without meeting with the instrumentalist,” he says, “who knows more about what they can and can’t do on the instrument? Yet they will go and write an opera without even talking to the singer.” 

Heggie encourages singers and composers to take part in a dialogue. “I know singers want to be friendly, they want to be employed—but you cannot do something that is damaging to your voice,” he says. “You can do it in a friendly way. You can say, ‘You know, this is not good for my voice, plus I can’t express what I think you want. How about I try this instead?’” 

Heggie works closely with his singers and will often make changes or create an optional melody rather than demand that a singer do it precisely come è scritto

“That’s not new,” he says. “It’s called ‘ossia.’ Historically, scores are filled with those. I did that with Moby-Dick. I wrote these impossible roles and thought, ‘Here is an alternate for somebody who can’t do that.’

“You have to love these singers,” he says. “They are the ambassadors for your work. They are the ones who are going to make your work shine—or not. I also tell composers: please don’t micromanage singers with 11/16 and a little tenuto, and then we’re in 12/16. Write it in a meter they can get their heads around so that they are actually working on the character and not worrying about counting and wrecking their voice. 

“If you really want an effective theatre piece, you have to work with the singer. It’s not dumbing your piece down; it’s smartening it up. And that doesn’t mean you can’t write music that’s complex. But you have to be smart about it and sympathetic to the needs of that singer. I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than what singers do. It takes such courage.” 

Along with the opera house, there is another rich musical world that has been close to Heggie’s heart for many years, and that is the community around San Francisco’s long-running musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon. Heggie’s husband, singing actor Curt Branom, is a cast member. Since it began in 1974, the show has become an ongoing theatrical landmark, but it will close at the end of this year after more than 17,000 performances. 

“It feeds the other side of me,” he says. “The musical theatre side. The whole team and crew—it is devastating to think of it not being in the city. I first saw it when I was 17. My mom took me to see it before I went to college.” 

San Francisco is an important ingredient in Heggie’s recipe for a happy life. He and Branom have a 23-year-old son. “He developed a lot of skills growing up here,” he says, “talking to our communities in the theater and at the opera. I think that will serve him well.” 

Heggie’s mother lives here now, and with his husband’s grueling schedule at “Babylon,” she would often cook for them on a Sunday evening. The next chapter will be different for the couple. Like Heggie, Branom is a teacher as well as an artist. “Curt is a great coach,” he says. “He goes with me to SongFest and works on their arias as monologues.” 

Branom also teaches through the Pacific Singers & Actors Workshop, a program that brings high-quality instruction from professional performing artists to middle and high school students in San Francisco. “Doing seven to nine shows a week for 20 years, with vacations but not really any vocal rest,” Heggie says, “he has a lot of information he can pass along.” 

While many composers are more specialized, Heggie’s output comprises operas, orchestral works, chamber music and, of course, songs. It’s a way of keeping himself challenged. 

“The thing I don’t want is to wind up repeating myself,” he says. “I want to be surprised in the moment. I want the characters to take me by surprise. I want the requirements of the next piece to terrify me a little bit. Like, ‘I think I can do that, but I’m not sure how the hell I’m going to do that!’ So that it isn’t premeditated and preordained. 

“The piece has to make sense for me personally for the skillset that I bring, but I also want it to surprise me and take me in new directions—which is why it goes from Dead Man Walking to Three Decembers to Moby-Dick to It’s a Wonderful Life to a holocaust opera to Great Scott and now to If I Were You. Different projects with different characters and dilemmas and different challenges for me as a theatre composer.” 

This sense of improv is something Heggie finds valuable in Branom’s coaching of singers. He also wishes it were more present in singers’ education. 

“Singing and technique is about building something you can count on,” he says. “Especially when you’re young, you are thinking about it all the time. Improv can really get you out of your head very quickly so that you can actually respond to a dramatic moment, rather than always depending on doing the same thing. 

“We rehearse and rehearse and rehearse so that we can repeat it exactly as we rehearsed it, which we have to do—but then the difficult thing about being a singer is that you have to keep it alive and lively in that moment as though you’ve never done it before, acting on what you want as a character. Or what you don’t know. You, as a singing actor, have to believe that you don’t know how this is going to turn out. You can’t play the end of the opera.” 

Heggie also emphasizes a meaningful use of the words. “English is an enormously expressive language,” he says. “I work very hard personally to make sure that singers at least stand a chance of getting the words across.” [Laughs.] 

If singers want to return the favor, they’ll follow Heggie’s simple advice. “Make sure you know what the words you are singing mean,” he says, “do them as monologues out of the context of music. Do the whole thing with no music and none of the composed rhythms, and get your own sense of it, and then add the rhythms and the intervals.” 

That spontaneity is what it’s about for him and what he wants for his audience members. If they say they got caught up in the drama and forgot they were watching an opera, he takes it as a complement. “You should be engaged in the action,” he says, “care about the characters, drawn into their musical worlds. To me that’s the fun of it, that it’s live theatre.” 

Heggie, like many artists, went through a dark period. Suffering problems with his hands that made playing piano difficult, his professional future was uncertain. 

“No one can predict the future or a career,” he says. “A career is a combination of things. Not only is it training, being prepared to go on, having the goods—but it’s also a certain amount of magic dust that comes your way, or doesn’t. 

“And that’s true in any business. There are brilliant people in the business world who were never in the right place at the right time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something that you love.” 

For Heggie, that meant trying to be a part of the music world, even if he couldn’t be at the center of it. He got work on the administrative side of things, which eventually led to a job writing press reports for the San Francisco Opera where he got to know artists, conductors, administrators, and the opera world inside out. “It’s easy to get sarcastic and jaded, especially if things don’t go your way,” he says. “But the thing to remember is that people don’t like being around people who are sarcastic and jaded. And that’s when opportunities start disappearing.” 

When asked to offer his advice on how to prevent that, Heggie recommends the thoughts of singing actor André De Shields, who recently won his first Tony Award at 73 years old. After decades of turning in acclaimed performances in musicals from The Wiz to The Full Monty, De Shields took home the win this year for best featured actor in a musical for his performance in Hadestown. For Heggie, the acceptance speech was a highpoint of the evening. 

The advice: “Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming,” De Shields said. “Slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be.” And, finally, “the top of the mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.” 

Heggie also says a reality check never hurts. “In a Q&A,” he says, “if someone asks me, ‘How do you do this? It’s so hard!’ I say, ‘Just being able to ask that question is a privilege. That this gets to be our hardship.’ 

“Because you know what’s really hard? Being an immigrant from another country. Having kids you can’t take care of, you’re not protected, you don’t feel safe. That’s hard. 

“Let’s talk reality. Keeping perspective is really important. And always keeping your main address gratitude. It’s not easy to do that in this profession. 

“Rejection is hard. It’s scary. It’s not secure. But how lucky are you to be pursuing a life in singing?” 

Next up, Heggie will accompany mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton for a recording of his songs that will also include an aria from If I Were You. It so happens I interviewed Barton just days after my interview with Heggie, and the two traded compliments, thrilled to be working together again and appreciative that they seem to share the same philosophy of finding joy in a labor of love. The album will be released by Pentatone sometime next year. 

Heggie’s next task, after our interview, is an errand to the Mac store to buy an oversized iPad to read from at the piano. An unwieldy amount of paper has inspired him to finally bow to the god of technology. In one way, the choice is surprisingly modern, given his penchant for pencil and paper—but in another, it is consistent with a practicality he urges composers to adopt. 

“We have to remember we are not curing cancer here,” he says. “We’re not performing brain surgery. We’re doing theatre. And, yes, every part of it matters. But we need to be flexible, and theatre especially has to be flexible because you have different singers with different voices and different talents.” 

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.