Behind the Scenes Interviews

Q & A: Jake Heggie On His New Work ‘Great Scott’ & His Continued Relationship With Joyce DiDonato

Jake Heggie is considered one of the greatest modern composers of our time. His work has been widely performed throughout with “Dead Man Walking” becoming one of the most popular modern operas around. His “Moby Dick” has also garnered quite a following and has also been performing throughout the United States.

In 2015 after the success of “Moby Dick” at the Dallas Opera, the composer was invited to return with a new work. His choice was an original comedy, “Great Scott.” With a stellar cast that included Joyce DiDonato, Frederica Von Stade, Ailyn Pérez, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Nathan Gunn, Heggie had the cast of a lifetime to construct a work that mixed Bel Canto with modern operatic writing.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Heggie about his work on the new opera, which was recently released on CD, his cast and the future of the work.

OperaWire: What was the inspiration behind the work?

Jake Heggie: We had a nice success with “Moby Dick” at the Dallas Opera and I told them, ‘What if we do something really bold and do something really original, a comedy?’ And Terrence McNally’s eyes lit up and it felt like the right thing. So he wanted to find something that had contemporary resonance and was about our time. That allowed opportunities to explore comic moments as well and we thought the opera world and a lot of companies are worried about the future and what they should be doing now that times are changing. So this story found a way to deal with all these questions of our time. But we wanted it to be fun and contemporary and something that would resonate.

OW: How has your collaboration with Terrence McNally evolved since “Dead Man Walking?” 

JH: Our first collaboration was “Dead Man Walking” and then we wrote a scene for piano and soprano together. Since then we have become great friends and we know each other’s work. And like any great collaboration, there is a lot of back and forth. He inspires me and he makes my work better and hopefully, I do the same for him. We’re a good match and this was actually one of the most challenging pieces I have ever written because opera lends itself to drama much more than it does to comedy. If you look at how many operatic comedies have survived the test of time and it’s very few because it’s about pacing and storytelling and truly imaginative situations. It’s a combination of things that will make it work so it’s really challenging. But McNally was a great partner to work with and we both wanted the same thing for the piece.

OW: Listening to the piece, it seemed you were inspired by the Bel Canto form. Can you tell me about your inspiration for the music?

JH: I’ve always loved the Bel canto music, so in the story, I would have to become Vittorio Bazetti and write a Bel canto opera that has never been performed. I just jumped at the chance and there was an opportunity to showcase all the wonderful techniques of Bel Canto that are actually in contemporary music today. The fine line was trying to find a musical language where all of these things just connected organically so they could jump out in the context of the piece. It was a dream to write in that style especially for singers like Joyce DiDonato and Ailyn Pérez. It was a dream.

OW: Did you study any of the Bel Canto scores while writing it?

JH: No, I have a long history of listening to Bel canto so I didn’t really have any scores. I have loved the Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini operas for so long so it was fun to explore and write in that style. I just went for instinct with what I knew and also from the text that Terrence wrote. Now he wrote the text in English and they translated it into Italian and we worked on it to lend itself for that style. And that was another process because I had never written in Italian before so that was a new challenge. And to write in all these styles was a huge challenge and then to make them connected rather than being dispersed.

OW: There is a star spangled banner in the opera. Tell me about writing that and what inspired that?

That was a huge gift from Terrence Mcnally where he set up this character, Tatyana Bakst who is incredibly ambitious who will be singing the Star Spangled banner at the Super Ball and she has a chance to show off and she’s going to take and run with it. In the libretto, all McNally wrote to me was that she is singing the Star Spangled Banner and very quickly it becomes unrecognizable because she is embellishing it and that it is kind of shocking and fabulous and thrilling and wonderful. Knowing that I’m writing it for Ailyn [Pérez], I had the opportunity to have a great time in her character. And it’s a great moment.

OW: Tell me about working with this stellar cast that you were able to put together for the world premiere?

JH: Well, first of all, knowing that I am writing for those singers actually frees me up to do anything that I want. If you can imagine being a screenwriter and they said to write a screenplay about Eleanor Roosevelt and it’s with Meryl Streep, that doesn’t limit you. That opens up an enormous amount of possibilities and frees up your imagination and that’s what writing for a great cast does. I know I was writing for some of the greatest singers and you know you can go anywhere and they will go with you. So writing for them is a huge gift and Joyce [DiDonato] and I have known each other for 20-plus years and I have worked with her in recitals, songs, and she’s done “Dead Man Walking” a lot. So I know her very well. And of course Frederica Von Stade and Ailyn Pérez, I know very well. Anthony Roth Costanzo. I got to know him, and he was very fun. It was my first role for a countertenor even though I had written songs for the voice type. And that was great fun. And these are not just tremendous singers, but also actors with great presence. It’s really inspiring and thrilling.

OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Joyce and how has it developed over the years?

JH: Knowing her voice and what a Bel Canto specialist she is and a great range she has with her voice from the soaring lyric lines to the machine gun like coloratura, it is a great gift I can explore. And also, she encouraged me to challenging her and to exploring all the lyric and virtuosic parts of her voice. She also asked me to challenge her as an actress on stage. She basically encouraged me to go as far as I wanted it in a huge role. Also, the friendship that she and I have really helps me to feel confident. And also if it was too much she would tell me to fix it.

OW: Why was the Dallas Opera the perfect place to do the world premiere?

JH: Well, we had done “Moby Dick” there in 2010 and it did really well and I loved working with the company. And whenever there was a challenge, the response was never, “We can’t do that.” The response was “Let’s see how we can make that work,” and that is necessary when we’re working with creative minds. I loved that about working with Dallas. After the success of “Moby Dick,” they invited me to do something and I said a comedy. They went for it.

OW: When did Erato and Warner Classics get involved with the recording?

JH: We needed to raise the money to make the recording process happen. Then the discussions with Warner happened really quickly and they attended the premiere and it was a matter of figuring out when it was the best time to release the recording based on the remastering as well as Joyce’s schedule, especially with all her CD releases.

OW: What’s next for “Great Scott?”

JH: It was done in San Diego and we did some revisions and rewrites that I am also planning on doing. We’re also in discussions with a couple of companies for a brand new version of the opera.

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One Response

  1. Madam / Sir,
    Recently bought the CD for Jake Heggie’s opera “Great Scott”. Even if the work is in English, I was disappointed that the libretto wasn’t included. Wondering how I could obtain the text…

    Bernard LeVert

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