Opera Profile: Jake Heggie’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

By Gillian Reinhard
(Photo: Karen Almond/Houston Grand Opera)

Jake Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” serves as an operatic successor to the beloved 1946 Frank Capra film of the same name.

The libretto, written by Gene Scheer, tells the familiar holiday story of George Bailey’s life crisis and redemption as based on the original text, a short story called “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.

The opera was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Houston hosted its world premiere on December 2, 2016. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in its first run, was conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Leonard Foglia and featured a dynamic cast including tenor William Burden as George Bailey, soprano Talise Trevigne as Clara, soprano Andrea Carroll as Mary Bailey, and baritone Rod Gilfry as the famous antagonist Mr. Potter.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of many works by Heggie that have entered the American operatic repertoire. It stands alongside “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick” as one of Heggie’s most popular works. In his own words, the composer has expressed his commitment to “long lyrical lines and colors” as well as “theatre and drama,” as seen in the opera.

Since its premiere, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a holiday staple at many American opera houses for its retelling of a beloved classic and for its emotional and lush score.

Short Plot Summary

“It’s a Wonderful Life” begins on Christmas Eve, where the audience is introduced to the “Angel Second Class” known as Clarence in the film and Clara—a female counterpart—in the opera. To receive her wings, Clara focuses her efforts on a down on his luck banker in Bedford Falls, New York named George Bailey. Clara is sent to earth to save George from his lowest point in life, where together they revisit George’s childhood and family life.

Famous Musical Numbers

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was recorded completely during its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera and can be found on Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon, among other streaming services. The score frequently showcases its commitment to the holiday season with a festive prelude and a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” at the finale of the opera. Each major character receives one or several arias throughout the two acts of the opera. “It’s a Wonderful Life” also features a soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone quartet, dubbed by the composer as “Quartet of Angels First Class” who help guide the action of the story.

Watch & Listen

Clara’s Aria, Indiana University Opera Theater

William Burden as George Bailey, San Francisco Opera

Mary’s Aria, Indiana University Opera Theater

Jake Heggie discusses “It’s a Wonderful Life,” San Francisco Opera


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