‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Creators On Revisions & What to Expect At San Francisco Opera

SFO’s Opening

By Lois Silverstein

In just a few weeks, the San Francisco Opera will showcase Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In anticipation of the production’s opening, the company held an event on Nov. 1, 2018, to showcase music, story and theme genesis designed for educators and the press.

Both Heggie and Scheer were in attendance alongside Dramaturg Kip Cranna, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, and pianist John Elam.

Not the Movie

The central question of the opera, based on Frank Capra’s beloved film of the same name, is “What would life be without you?” After attempting suicide, George Bailey must struggle with his sense of purpose and how he touches everyone in his life.

Everybody who loves the film might wish to see it on stage. This will not happen, the artists affirm.  Instead, we will see a re-visioning, complete with an Angel named Clara, rather than Clarence, and modes of story and music through unique blends of magical realism, musical comedy, barbershop quartet, dance, even the invented dance, the Mekki-Mekki. The opera even gives a new ending to the story.

Indiana University School of Music put on an early version of the opera with student performers. After seeing that presentation, Heggie and Scheer cut 15 percent of the opera.

“Doing it in front of an audience,” Heggie said, “brings out what should stay and what needs to go.” This was true in the Houston Grand Opera performance in 2017 as well. “More was cut, we altered set and  lighting so that the SFO performance will be better illuminated, literally and storywise.”

Major American Motifs

As in their other successful operas, “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby Dick,” Heggie and Scheer give the opera some major American motifs.

Bailey, sung by William Burden in the SFO production, wants to “Invent a life bigger than anything he’d ever seen.” He invites Mary, sweetheart and later wife, to join him in a similar quest when he sings to her, “What do you dream, Mary.” Mary will be sung by soprano Canadian soprano, Andriana Chuchman.

Meanwhile, the journey of the Angel Clara, sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz and Kearstin Piper Brown, is about going big or going home, as she aims to earn her wings. Heggie and Scheer’s view of the motif of doorways, entrances to new ways of seeing and living, is part of the American dream that threads the work.

The Education and the Communications department of SFO teamed up for this event, making another all-out effort to spread the word about the possibilities of such music entering into the lives of people who might not have it otherwise. This extends also to the Initiative SFO is backing, Earn Your Wings.

Kirsten Pearsall sang some selections from the opera and offered her big and bounteous voice with excitement galore. When asked if she were intimidated by being involved in a new performance of a new opera, she said it was the contrary. “I like being the first one to lay down some image of how the part will be rather than being in someone else’s image.”

Leonard Foglia will direct the production and as with the earlier versions of the work, Patrick Summers will conduct. November 17, 2018 is the opening, and subsequent performances will run through December.