Opera composer Jake Heggie brings shorter works to University of Texas

Most composers of classical music have predictable origin stories: Go to school, study hard, meet the right people … go to a better school, and then find out how long you can dine out on your first few commissions.

But opera composer Jake Heggie, who rose to fame from his first work, “Dead Man Walking,” has his own story.

A few stories, really — a family tragedy, an unconventional marriage, a debilitating condition that forced him to stop playing piano (now cured), then a sudden rise, plucked almost from nowhere.

A writer once remarked that Heggie’s own life has been “operatic.” Which is hard to parse; even if there’s some truth there, it may not be polite to say it out loud.

“I don’t think of my life as operatic,” Heggie explains on the phone from his San Francisco studio.

“I had a lot of tragedy in my life early on — and I had a lot of struggles, but everyone struggles with decisions as we grow up. I wouldn’t wish what happened to me as a kid on anybody — with a parent committing suicide. It’s like a bomb going off with emotional shrapnel.”

Yet, perhaps the struggle helps a composer connect emotionally with the characters, and connect with opera in the first place.

After serious training as a pianist and a touring career, Heggie found himself writing news releases for the San Francisco Opera. Similar to Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting” (a mathematical genius who just happened to work cleaning floors in the math department at MIT), Heggie garnered notice through the back door by writing songs for singers who passed through the office. San Francisco asked for a full-length commission.

Now, Heggie has a weeklong residency at the University of Texas’ Butler Opera Center, accompanied by the $40,000 Eddie Medora King Award, given to outstanding composers. Heggie is hosting master classes and working with students as they perform two of his operas, “At the Statue of Venus” (2005) and “Three Decembers” (2008).

These are smaller productions than the operas that made Heggie’s name, “Moby Dick” (2010) and “Dead Man Walking” (2000). The latter was Heggie’s first full opera, and since it premiered at the San Francisco Opera company, with a libretto by Terrence McNally, it’s been produced in 40 cities on five continents. Austin Opera performed “Dead Man Walking” in 2003.

What may be surprising is that Heggie sees a through-line between characters like Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick” and the family members in “Three Decembers,” which is Heggie’s most autobiographical work.

“Ahab — he is like one of the characters in (Wagner’s) Ring Cycle,” he says.

Queequeg, Ahab and Sister Prejean, “they’re part of our American mythology,” Heggie says. “These characters seem real and seem mythical at the same time. They’re very flawed people who are reaching out for the answer.”

In “Three Decembers,” Heggie says, “the mother, son and daughters are very flawed but try to find one another through the mess of their lives and get something out of it.”

Clearly Texas audiences are getting something out of Heggie’s work. Houston Grand Opera and the Dallas Opera have commissioned several new works from Heggie. He is set to premiere “It’s a Wonderful Life” for Houston in December.

“We’ve been able to do really good work (in Texas) that resonates beyond the original place. They allow me to explore,” he says.

That exploration, often with writers McNally and Gene Scheer, has also played with shorter forms. Heggie often writes one-act operas, about 90 minutes long.

“With ‘Three Decembers,’ the idea was we were going to write it for small ensemble and singers.” So the instruments appeared not in the orchestra pit, but on stage, because the mother is a stage actress. Music was such a part of her life, Heggie says, “It seemed not gratuitous.”

Heggie describes “At the Statue of Venus” as a 20-minute scene of a woman waiting for a blind date at the statue of Venus. It was originally just piano and voice, but he’s written a new orchestration of the piece for the Butler School, using the same instruments already in play for “Three Decembers.”

“I like this convention that music surrounds these characters (on stage), whether they know it or not,” Heggie says.

The other part of his trip to Austin involves teaching, and Heggie has a message for opera composers and performers that is unexpected.

“There’s more opportunity in opera than any other field right now for young composers,” Heggie says. “There’s this flourishing.”

Not that the reviews are always encouraging. Heggie’s work with his collaborators has been both adored and abused in his short but brilliant career. Sometimes the complaint is a sluggish story, sometimes the music.

For many years, Heggie says, “I think the opera world was taken hostage by academia,” with works that were “thorny and dense.” These new American opera composers “want to tell more contemporary stories that are of this time, in our country. And they want to use influences of jazz and punk and rock, musical theater … and not shy away from them.”

One thing Heggie hopes to shy away from is his so-called operatic life.

“Today I try to keep my life as boring as possible.”

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