Opera in the Time of COVID: Jake Heggie, Iconic Opera Composer of ‘Dead Man Walking,’ ‘Moby Dick’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Frances Marshall)

“Opera in the Time of COVID” is an interview series in collaboration with photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio. We talk to notable figures from around the opera world to get their perspective on how they feel these challenging times may change opera’s present and future.

Jake Heggie is one of the renowned opera composers of today. His major works include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Moby Dick,” “If I Were You,” “Great Scott,” and, most famously, “Dead Man Walking,” which has been produced over 70 times since its world premiere back in 2000. And that’s just his operas. In sum, Heggie has composed over 250 art songs to go along with several orchestra, choral, and chamber works. He’s a composer for all audiences.

In this edition of “Opera in the Time of COVID,” Heggie reveals not only that he has some major projects on the horizon, but also expounds on a rather diverse taste in film and television.

OperaWire: What have you done during this time to keep yourself positive and productive?

JH: My husband and I have been taking long afternoon/evening walks all over the hills of San Francisco – reconnecting with our neighborhood, waving at neighbors, finding hidden routes, etc. We’ve also been cooking every night – trying new recipes. I’m trying to keep a routine of daily rituals to keep me focused and on track. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have a big new opera project on my desk, so I go to my studio every day. It’s set to premiere in Oct 2021 at the Houston Grand Opera.

It’s a thrilling, deeply meaningful project titled INTELLIGENCE, about women spies in the South during the Civil War –it deals with identity, ancestry, legacy, empowerment. I’m in the early stages of composing to Gene Scheer’s gorgeous libretto, so all the characters are revealing themselves – which is always an exciting, special time. It’s completely immersive and new, so I feel very fortunate.

OW: What do you feel will be the greatest impacts of COVID-19 on the opera world moving forward? What are some new developments that you feel are here to stay? 

JH: It’s hard to say, because I think the ripple effect could be surprising – some of it devastating, especially financially. But there’s also opportunity for innovation and new possibilities.

I also hope all of us in the arts (singers, instrumentalists, creators, administrators, people backstage, front of house, etc etc) – now realize we have to support and champion it, as well. We, too, are responsible for cultivating new audiences, bringing younger people into the fold, being mentors, buying tickets – and also reaching out for support in the arts, cultivating donors. We all have to make this part of our job

In the United States, opera companies have been struggling for years to maintain a lively presence in the cultural lives and imaginations of our communities. My hope is that there will be a renewed appreciation for what it is to gather as a community for music, singing, and the incredible, high wire act of opera. I feel there will be a hunger for classics and special interest in pieces that feel current. For singers, contracts are going to have be written differently regarding how they are paid in case of Force Majeure. Many of my friends and colleagues have been slammed by a sudden stop of all income – and a large percentage have no savings to fall back on.

OW: One of the major developments of this time is the emergence of streaming and connecting with fans and followers more directly via social media. How has this impacted your time in quarantine?

JH: I’ve become more of a hermit than ever as a composer … but I’ve been entertained and moved by how many singers have creatively found a way to connect to fans and friends through innovative, often very funny performances online. I’m also touched by how many have reached out to support artists who have lost all their income.

OW: What is an outcome of it that you didn’t expect? 

JH: People are enormously grateful for the online presence, but it has made everyone realize there’s no substitute for BEING THERE … the hunger for the live, communal experience of opera is stronger than ever, I think.

OW: What do you enjoy most about this new development? 

JH: How singers and artistic leaders are finding creative ways to use technology to make opera feel current, entertaining and far reaching. They are also gathering as a community to support one another in this effort.

OW: What is something that makes you apprehensive about its sudden preponderance? How can opera companies and artists around the world learn from it moving forward and should it become a bigger part of the opera season experience moving forward? 

JH: Again, I think it will make people even HUNGRIER for the live experience! I think it is a way to reach a broader audience and maybe even build an audience that wasn’t there .

OW: And in your view, is that even feasible for all parties (not only companies but artists) involved? 

JH: ABSOLUTELY. Everyone now has access to the internet and this innovative technology.

OW: What are you most excited about doing once the quarantine officially comes to an end and we are allowed to resume a “normal” life?

JH: Not thinking about it and being haunted by it constantly. GATHERING AS A COMMUNITY! Feeling like the city is alive again: experiencing opera, music, theater, the cultural life of my city LIVE and in person! Meeting others – gathering with friends.

OW: Who have been the people you have relied on most to help you through these challenging times? 

JH: My wacky, fun groups of family and friends – singers and civilians! We have been texting more than ever – sending each other hilarious, short video clips – staying in touch even for short hellos – having Zoom gatherings that couldn’t possibly happen in real life because of distance.

OW: What activities do you miss the most?

JH: Being able to show up! Going to the theater and opera – to restaurants – having friends over for dinner. Feeling like the exchange in the community is constant and vital.

OW: Most people in quarantine are actively engaging with the arts via either music, TV, film, reading, literature. Etc. What have you been watching or reading during this time?

JH: Watching: Grace & Frankie, Schitt’s Creek, The Kominsky Method, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Plot Against America, The Crown; … Reading: The Overstory, River of Fire, Girl/Woman/Other … Trying to avoid the news! … Listening to lots of music from my youth: Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt. Heart, James Taylor, Carol King, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Eagles, etc.

OW: Speaking more globally about the pandemic, what can the world learn about this experience? What do you hope to see from our leaders (political or even industry) in order to build a better future that enables us to better manage any similar type of situation? 

JH:I hope people realize that EVERYBODY has to participate in order to make our society work – everyone has to have access to basic infrastructures: food, health care, education, shelter. And that gathering for sports and the arts humanizes and connects us much more than our phones or computers. Physically showing up for each other is everything – EVERYTHING.