Highly renowned composer and pianist Jake Heggie will visit Cornell’s music department from Thursday to Saturday for a master class and panel discussion with fellow visiting artist, Gene Scheer. Heggie will accompany his own songs and arias at a final recital at 8 p.m. on Saturday at Barnes Hall. The Sun spoke with Heggie over the phone last Saturday morning about the inspiration he finds in opera, his personal past struggles and this year’s elections.
The Sun: For a lot of your songs, you write for a specific singer. Do you always write with someone in mind?
Jake Heggie: I always write with someone in mind, whether it’s an opera role or a song, or even an instrumental piece, like chamber music. I just need to know the personality of the person that I’m writing for. So it’s like, for example, if you take an opera like Moby Dick, I knew … I was going to be writing the role of Ahab for [tenor] Ben Heppner, and that actually defined sort of the sound world and the physical world of that person for me in such that it actually liberated my mind to really write freely because I knew the skills of the person I was writing for ...
Sun: So you would never write a piece for someone’s voice you don’t know?
J.H.: No, I mean, I’ve tried doing that in the past, and I find it very — I mean, I guess some composers don’t have a problem with that, but it’s sort of an abstract person out there; my heart isn’t in it the same way, you know, because my whole point with writing is connection. I think that’s the reason that I am so driven in this art form ... I do it to connect, which is why I love to collaborate.
Sun: And you do collaborate with all sorts of people. How do you come to work with certain people or opera companies?
J.H.: Well, it’s usually a [commissioned] work … so I’ve been commissioned by San Francisco Opera, by Dallas, by Houston, by other chamber groups, things like that. What we’ll do is we’ll talk about first what the collaboration is going to be that would be meaningful for the company [and] that’s something that I feel I need to write — not just want to write, but really need to write. And because with the projects as big as, for example, an opera, or a big chamber piece or a set of songs, I’m devoting weeks ... or years ... of my life to a project. So it has to be something that I feel very passionate about, that it’s meaningful and that I’m willing to devote that time that I will never get back again, you know? But ... the time that I put from my own life will live on in that score if I do my job well. And once we find the subject or the team that’s right, then looking for the right singer for it — that’s the fun part [laughs] ... The casting is just, you know, like a ray of sunshine ...
Sun: What specifically do you find intriguing in a new piece of work?
J.H.: I think struggles — personal crises … that have to do with establishing one’s identity, that central question of “Who am I?” and how we find our way to it, I think those stories are really inspiring to me, when people overcome obstacles ... when there’s a transformative experience that has to do with leading to clarity about one’s identity...
Sun: Do you find inspiration in specific places in today’s society?
J.H.: Oh, I find inspiration everywhere. [laughs] But mostly I think what gets me inspired, is not just those particular characters who are struggling ... but the great story behind it ... The production that was on last night at Vanderbilt is an opera ... called Three Decembers, and it’s about a ... struggle in family dynamics as well as your identity within your family and in the families that you established outside, and how those intersect as you struggle to really know who you are and what your connection is with other people. It’s, in a way, that word that I brought up in the beginning, of connection that always comes circling around.
But I find great stories all over the place ... I wrote a chamber piece this past summer that was done at a festival on Orcas Island, which is one of the San Juan islands off the coast of Seattle, and it was the experience of, you know, driving your car onto the ferry, that takes you from the main continent out through the middle of the ocean to this island and what that journey is. And I just found that such a fascinating journey that I wrote a whole chamber piece about it.
Sun: For many listeners, contemporary classical music can be difficult to listen to. Do you find it difficult for you to write your music with that in mind, with your listeners?
J.H.: I write [in a] very tonal but freely-chromatic musical style [that is] very lyrical; I write an emotional palette, a very emotional landscape for characters to live in. And my thing is, I want to challenge my audience, but I also want to include them and I want to let them know right away that they’re part of the journey ... So I don’t think my music is necessarily off-putting. It embraces and welcomes people in and still challenges them, emotionally, intellectually, but they’re part of it, and not excluded at an arm’s length. That’s what I try to do.
Sun: I actually sang one of your songs, “My True Love Hath My Heart.” And, you know, I did not like it at first, I’ll tell you that. But then as the weeks passed, I just fell in the love with the song, and now I can’t listen to it without going back to it and thinking about my experience with it. So thank you for the song!
J.H.: You did? Oh really? [laughs] You’re very welcome! You know the story of that song is, I first wrote it as a solo, and then someone said they wanted it for their wedding, and they said, “We have another friend who wants to sing, too, could you make it a duet?” So I made it a duet, and they said, “Oh now we have a cello friend who’d like to play, too, so can you make a version with a cello, too?” [laughs] So it’s all because of this friend’s wedding that torpedoed it to exist in like three forms.
Sun: I understand you were initially unsure about writing your latest opera, Moby Dick. Were there other big compositions that you were initially hesitant about?
J.H.: Well, I don’t take on a project unless I’m a little scared of it. I like ... to think in my head, “I think I can do that but I don’t know if I can do that,” because that’s a challenge that will sustain me and push me beyond my comfort zone. I don’t want to just be an artist that repeats himself over and over again. I want to explore different ways of looking at things and hearing things, so part of the fun of a project is finding something that sort of overwhelms me.
One of the big projects that I just took on is a new opera for Joyce DiDonato for the Dallas Opera with Terrence McNally, on an original story that he’s writing, but it’s a comic opera, and I think there’s nothing scarier [laughs] than trying to write something comic ...
Sun: Do you embrace other fears, out of curiosity?
J.H.: Oh, well, you know, I mean, I think in my life ... I constantly want to push myself as an individual. I think the broader I become as an individual, the more information I have to share through music and theater. So I think conquering fear throughout life is [laughs] really key.
But, I mean, that was long ago [when] that started with me. My father committed suicide when I was 10, and the world became a very scary place, and I had, step-by-step, to try to conquer that feeling with not only having a father that killed himself but being a gay teen when it really was not easy or acceptable, you know in Ohio in the ’70s, and struggling with that identity. All the things I went through in my 20s, you know: ... exploring different mediums, losing the use of one of my hands to play the piano for about five years ... through something called a focal dystonia, but also learning ... I might have a life adjacent to [music] even when I never would’ve thought I would have a life in it, and then ... moving to San Francisco, and starting over again, finally embracing my own identity, step-by-step. After that becoming an opera composer, you know, sort of always stepping over another boundary line that I thought maybe I couldn’t step over.
So ... I’ve always felt it’s very important to learn to confront those fears head-on. In your gut, you feel afraid because it’s not comfortable or it’s not something you know, but ... by confronting it, by stepping over it, you become a broader, better person, and every project I take I feel that way. I think opera is one of the scariest art forms to work in because it has so many moving parts and so many different things can go wrong. You’re depending on mere mortals to do superhuman things at every level so it’s a high-wire act every step of the way. But I do think when you conquer that and when ... it comes together successfully, I think it makes everyone involved with it feel like a better person than they were before. It has a transformative power, and if that works, then the audience actually feels transformed, like something has changed within them, that we all have a mark in our hearts, somehow.
Sun: You were talking about being gay earlier. In recent decades, in terms of gay rights, we have been moving in the right direction.
J.H.: Oh my god, it’s amazing ... I never thought I’d see where we are today ... or that I’d be able to marry my partner. It’s astounding. It used to be associated with such rejection and isolation, you know, being pushed out of society, you don’t belong. But that’s such bullshit. So when you realize it’s bullshit, you realize when you are yourself, the right people show up in your life, and then that’s how you change minds ... by being a real person, by being an authentic person. Authenticity always wins.
Sun: And especially with this year’s presidential election, gay rights has been in play significantly. Can I ask what you thought of [last] Tuesday’s results?
J.H.: Oh, I was over the moon; I couldn’t believe it! I was really — I was just ready to do back flips, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t home in San Francisco with my family. I was in Nashville watching a rehearsal of my opera, but interestingly enough while the scene that I was watching — I’m getting a little emotional just thinking about it — the scene that I was watching is one where the gay character in this opera, Three Decembers, is packing up his lover’s clothes because he’s just died of AIDS, and he’s ... writing a note to [his lover] because he writes to him every day even after he [has] died, and that was the moment when all those initiatives passed and Obama was reelected. So it was definitely like a jump in time ... to literally be seeing where we were 16, 17 years ago in this scene in this opera and where we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. I find it terribly moving and exciting, and also, so hopeful that when people are faced with authenticity and humanity that they do move in the right direction ...
Sun: Did you have anything else you wanted to say?
J.H.: I’ve never been up to Cornell so I’m really looking forward to being in that part of the country ... My most important teacher, Joanna Harris ... taught there in, I don’t know, like the ’40s or ’50s ... and I love Judy Kellock who’s the one who organized this and invited me. I just admire her so much, and Steve Stucky, too. Oh, and there’s two pianists up there, Blaise Bryski and Xak Bjerken, and I knew both of them at UCLA when I was a student.