The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic, composer, Jake Heggie joined me on April 6, 2020. I found particularly beautiful his optimism for the future and call for all artists to join the cause of advocating for the arts.
Jake Heggie, composer
Interviewed April 6, 2020
TB: I always like to start off these interviews with something positive. So can you tell me what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
JH: I think what’s been really great is connecting and staying connected with all my friends and the big circle of people that I know, especially through humor. By way of humor, being able to just touch base, from the funny short videos and anecdotes that are going around. I’d say that’s been a real highlight of the past week and the past few weeks. Also, being in San Francisco with the weather actually being very Spring-like and nice, we’ve been able to go on these long, long walks in the afternoon. Like an hour and a half to two hours; up and down hills and all of these hidden staircases around the city. Getting to know our neighborhood and our city in a way that we haven’t in a long time. Also, to wave to neighbors that we don’t usually see. So, it’s a different kind of connection, but it’s been very heartening. I feel a spirit of goodwill and connection—because we’re all in this together—that I didn’t necessarily feel before.
TB: Obviously, you’ve written some major seminal works, including Dead Man Walking, and Moby Dick, but maybe you could tell us a little bit about the last premiere that you had and a little bit about what you’re working on now?
JH: Sure, I had a big premiere in January. It was part of a project called the Violins of Hope. [https://violinsofhopesfba.org] These are instruments that were played by Jews in concentration camps and work camps during the Holocaust, including violins, a viola and a cello. There’s now over 80 instruments in the collection and more than 50 of them came to San Francisco in January for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I was commissioned to write a piece to tell those stories using their instruments. So Gene Scheer and I wrote a piece called Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, that featured mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, solo violinist, Daniel Hope, a quartet of players from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and a young violinist named Sean Maury; all performing and telling stories that really happened to people. The instruments, having been restored and saved, are still being played, which made it a really moving and remarkable project on so many levels.
It was recorded live and will be out later this year, hopefully, on Pentatone Classics. It was a huge project. It’s about a 40 minute cycle and was very challenging to write because it could easily go terribly, terribly dark. So you want to find the humanity and the human moments that again lighten it up. Like I was talking about how humor helps us get through this pandemic time, humor helped people get through the Holocaust and through different wars; looking for moments of light, hope, and connection even in really dark moments. So, that’s something I’ve actually been thinking about a lot. That piece happened in January and then I just finished orchestrating that, for an orchestral premier that has now been postponed a year.
I just finished setting some texts of Margaret Atwood, for a baritone named Josh Hopkins for this Fall. The story of those is really quite amazing too. Even though the premier will happen with piano, I just orchestrated those as well. They’re called Songs for Murdered Sisters and the sad story behind this is Josh Hopkins’ sister was murdered five years ago, on the same day that her ex murdered all three of his exes. So, three women in one day by this one man. What we don’t know is that in the UK and Canada, on average, three to five women a week are murdered this way, by either a current or former spouse. So the domestic violence there is pretty profound, as it is all over the world. He [Hopkins] really wanted to do a project to tell the story about his journey in dealing with this, and also to inform people. So I told him, I would be happy to do it, but we needed to work with a great Canadian woman to write the texts. We started texting with Margaret Atwood’s assistant and all of a sudden Margaret Atwood starts chiming in, and out of the blue sent these amazing eight poems, which I set. Those were also very difficult to set. It was a dark time—the past few months—setting and writing these things. But again, finding hope and possibility for a brighter future by exploring the tragedies that other people have been through. Cultural memory is so short that telling stories with music is one way to make sure that other people are aware of these stories and what happened to these people. So that maybe through those alerts, it doesn’t happen again. So those are the projects that I’ve been working on.
TB: Thank you for sharing those. One of the things that we were discussing before the interview was how subject matter seems to be secondary to you, as you said, but, as shown with these projects, characters really seem to shine through. So, diving into the issue of the pandemic, could you first tell me a little bit about the recent past? Where were you and what were you working on when you first realized that this pandemic was going to have an impact on your life?
JH: I was in Hawaii in January on a retreat to orchestrate Intonations, the piece about the Violins of Hope, when I first started hearing about this. Then I was in New York at the end of February, to hear Joyce DiDonato sing Agrippina at the Met, and to catch up with some colleagues there. All of a sudden, it became very clear that this was going to have an impact, I just didn’t know how long an impact. I got back from New York and actually came back with a cold, which freaked me out a little bit. I was very congested, but I never had a fever. Then all of a sudden, all of this just felt very, very real. And then suddenly, people were talking about canceling this, that, and the other and then once the cancellations started, they just snowballed. It was amazing. I know a lot of these places are hoping that they’re just postponements, that they’ll reschedule them for next year rather than just outright cancel, but I know for a lot of my colleagues who are dealing with this, those are permanent cancellations; like the Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Lyric, and the Met. Those productions are not going to come back.
Those were things that had been planned and worked on for years, that are now gone. The things that were mine that were postponed were smaller scale or with mid-sized companies. So, they’re hoping to postpone them to another season and I guess that [began] the creeping realization of just exactly what this meant. Around the first and second week of March is when it became clear that it was really going to be long range, and when the first thing in June actually got cancelled—which was in the middle of March—Rosemary Ritter cancelled SongFest, in Los Angeles, which is a month long program at the Colburn school. And she cancelled the whole thing. That’s when I thought, “Okay, this is going to really blossom and effect a lot of things…” And it has. My next thing now, that is realistically possible, is in late August, but that could go away too. We just don’t know. I think the scary part about all this, is the uncertainty and the unknown. I’m used to dealing with that as a creative person. Every day I go into the studio, everything is unknown. I just trust that something is going to happen, but it’s a benign uncertainty and unknowing. This just does not feel benign. I feel like new possibilities and new opportunities will emerge after this, but I think it’s a very dark, scary place for a lot of people right now.
TB: I think so too. So, because you’ve already noted that you have had some cancellations in your schedule, could you talk about how that affects you and your financial health as you’re moving forward?
JH: Well, I have been preparing for being unemployed for over 20 years in this business. Because first of all, I can’t believe I get to have this career. I’ve always been surprised that I got to have this career and I have never taken a moment of it for granted. Which is why I have worked really, really, really hard over the past 20 plus years to write 10 operas, a bunch of one acts, several hundred art songs, residencies, and concerts. I work really hard because I know how very lucky I am. But I’ve also been very conscious about saving and putting money aside, as much as possible, for rainy days. I haven’t had to touch it, miraculously. So, right now financially, I’m okay. My husband and I are okay for the time being because we’ve saved. I will feel a ding from not having the royalties from those concerts or performances. But my biggest concern is not that, it is that these companies are able to stand on their feet and the singers are able to stay grounded, so that they can get back to work when the time is right and they can survive in the meantime. For me, personally, I’m actually quite fortunate and I didn’t have any huge premieres during this period that were cancelled. So, I was fortunate in that regard as well. Because the schedule is wiped clean, all I can do is go to my studio every day and write. I don’t have a lot of interruptions. So in a way, it’s actually helped the next piece to the next big opera that I am writing. But it is also very distracting and… terrible, because I know a lot of people are suffering greatly through all of this.
TB: So one of the things that you’ve already alluded to is the creative process. Could you elaborate a little bit more on how this has been affecting you as a creative?
JH: Well, like I said, part of my job as a composer—like a big part as a theater composer, especially—is to empathize; to empathize with all the different characters involved. Whether they’re perceived as good, bad, or however the audience perceives them. My job is to empathize with them and not judge them. I… I can’t help but also empathize with all the stories of people struggling. Which is why it’s very important for me not to go down the hole of watching the news all the time, it will really drag me down. So, I mean that part is very distracting because I do know a lot of people who are struggling through this. And also, it can feel like in the midst of all of this, why does writing an opera matter at all? I mean, that definitely comes into the picture. People are losing their lives, and they’re struggling, and they’re scared, and… But it is my job, and it is what I do, and it will help to create other opportunities, I believe, in the future.
So I stay focused on that and when I get into the creative zone, where suddenly I’m tuned into the vibration, the characters, the storytelling of this piece, and the musical language of it, everything else really does disappear. So, I’m very grateful for that. That I have that—I don’t want to call it “escape”—but a different kind of connection to look forward to. But, you know, then I leave the studio and the world feels like a different place right now and you don’t have the sense of certainty that… that we’ve had. I think the certainty right now comes from the connections to the people that we know, our friendships and our family. The things that we can feel sure and certain about are really bolstering our lives right now. But I do feel like the piece that I’m writing is important, that it matters, and again, that it will help to create another opportunity. First of all and again, I feel so incredibly lucky that I get to do this for a living and that I have this big job on my desk right now, that doesn’t open until October/November of 2021. So there’s a chance it actually will happen. But yeah, it’s just a very, very distracting, difficult time in that regard.
TB: Well, at least you won’t have to pull a Mozart in writing the overture the night before.
JH: [Laughter] I have no excuses to be late on this piece. None.
TB: So let me ask you a hard question about being in the time that we’re in now. What would you say is the hardest lesson that you have learned so far, in this experience?
JH: Well, my… my very good friend and collaborator, Terrence McNally actually died from… from this a few weeks ago. And I hadn’t… I hadn’t spoken to him or seen him since November last year, when we had dinner in New York. It was another stark reminder that this is all precarious and precious—and reaching out to the people that you care about, that matter to you, and that have changed your life—it’s important to remember to reach out and acknowledge those people because they will be gone. All of this is temporary. We can get swept away with our own sense of immortality, and… and that this moment feels so permanent, but it is important to remember to break out of our own routine, and reach out to people who matter to us and let them know how much they do. I think that was the hardest reminder, I can’t… I can’t call him anymore, I can’t reach out to him, we will never collaborate on anything [again]. If indeed the Met does produce Dead Man Walking next April, he won’t be there to… to walk on the stage with me to take a bow. However, I’ve asked his husband, if I can wear something of his when I take a bow. I think that’s been the hard reminder, don’t take a moment of this for granted.
Also, it feels very easy to let the days sort of bleed one into the other and if you’re feeling upset about the loss of work, being quarantined, or all these things, the days can suddenly be wasted. They can suddenly flow one into the other. I think it’s very important not to let the days slip away, but to really seize the day, take advantage, and do what you can. I think, if you’re a singer who’s out of work, learn another language while this is happening, learn your scores, learn other music. Reach out to other people, reach out to young people or older people that you know and offer to sing for them, read to them, or connect with them. And I just… Terrence’s death was just a stark, sudden reminder of how temporary all of this is and there isn’t a day to waste.
TB: Thank you for sharing that. So turning to the recent past, how different was your life six weeks ago?
JH: Well, you know, my life is very much about going to my studio, and being a hermit and thinking by myself. I’d say what’s really different is my husband was a member of a long running show, called Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. The show had a 45 year run, and he was in it for over 20 years. The show closed on December 31, last year . So, he had set up all these gigs—directing, performing—everything totally disappeared when all this happened. One of the big changes in my life is we have dinner together every night. [Laughter] We never did that before, and we’ve been together 21 years. We’ve never had dinner consecutively, week after week. It’s just a very strange thing because I’m also not traveling, and I usually do a lot of traveling for teaching, performing, or residencies and that’s all gone. So, it has led us to reconnect in a very special way, and again, go on wonderful walks together, explore topics, share movies and series, and things that we never had time to do before. So, it’s actually been a positive change in that regard.
I am a very positive, optimistic person. So, I’m always looking for the good things that can come out of something and I do believe there’s going to be… no, there already is a sense of cherishing what it is to actually be able to connect. That when we actually do feel comfortable to go and gather in theaters, concert halls, or other public spaces, I think there’s going to be a new and great appreciation for the privilege of that. That it is a privilege. It’s not something we could just take for granted. Just like the privilege of a career in the arts. It’s extraordinary, and not to be taken for granted. So, I think all of that has come sweeping into my consciousness lately.
TB: One of the things that you bridged on already was that we’re going to have this new sense of privilege when we share an experience, especially in the theater. So, how do you think that this will change the musical landscape?
JH: You know, it’s hard to say. There’s going to be some really long-term damage to the companies that we know. I think artists’ managers are really struggling, especially the smaller ones. And small level companies are really struggling. This hits them very hard. I think it will be a very different landscape. There’s going to have to be a lot of creativity, goodwill, and generosity of spirit in order to rebuild and reestablish things. But I do feel like that goodwill is there. I hope I’m right. I have been talking to other people who have shared that feeling as well; to recognize just how fortunate we are to be able to do this.
I’ve always felt for singers, particularly, because whereas I can write music all day long, with no one, but to be a performer and a singer, you have to have an invitation and permission to be on the stage. Doing it for all these people, and then hopefully, with a paycheck involved. But you know, not to have that suddenly is stifling. I’ve always maintained that talent always finds a way to express itself. So, if there isn’t a platform, a platform will be created. Which is why we’ve had all these smaller companies that specialize in new operas, and performers that are drawn to this because they like doing new work. And I think there could be a flourishing of that kind of thing; performers gathering together, creating their own groups, and finding a strong message to share and a strong way of sharing it. I do think there will be innovation and again, this appreciation for gathering that maybe had… had gone astray because we take so much for granted.
TB: Well, one of the things that you mentioned was smaller companies and smaller works. Is that something that interests you as a composer?
JH: Oh, absolutely. I’ve always been drawn to a large array of sized works. So, everything from very large works, to a couple of one acts that are one or two characters, one has an actor and a singer. I think it’s very important to support companies of all levels and I’m interested in many different kinds of expression, dramatically and theatrically. I like being prolific, I like being challenged, and I like having a lot of different projects at one time to keep me on my toes. I find busy is better for me, that’s for sure. If I have too much time, that’s not a good thing for me. You know, it’s sort of like if someone says to me, why don’t you write a song for me “some time.” Well, that is never going to happen. But if they tell me, you know, I could use it next month, and it’s for this hall and it’s for this size group, that I could do.
But again, the uncertainty of what’s happening now… There is a certainty that we will get to another phase of this and there will be people who are eager to tell stories and share their work. And with a new perspective, and a new appreciation for performing it and for being there, and for participating in it. One of the things that my husband was in the middle of doing was directing a high school musical for a local high school; The Putnam County Spelling Bee. They hadn’t even gotten to the stage and the whole thing had to be cancelled. So, they’re trying to do rehearsals via Zoom, and put something together for their parents and friends, so that they can have something. Because a lot of them are seniors and this is their high school musical. So you know, it’s their last chance, so that they have something. But that kind of creativity, innovation, and passion for creating something and working together, you know, I remain hopeful and optimistic about that.
TB: So, let me ask you two more questions in closing. First, is my favorite because you know, I’m a teacher at heart. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
JH: What question did you not ask me… I don’t know, the thing is you’re good about opening up a topic and then having a conversation about it… Oh, one of the things that I was going to talk about was; where’s the support going to come from for a lot of these projects in the future? One of the places I was going to that I didn’t get to when I was talking about the high school musical was, that because kids are involved in it and they care about it, that we all care about it, that we all realize we can be mentors to someone younger. We can all reach out to someone and say, “Look, you know, even if you give $15 or $100, it makes a difference to your arts organizations locally.” Everyone needs to become a donor in some capacity, a donor and a mentor.
Everyone of us can participate to help nurture and move the system along. In the past, I remember a lot of singers or performers telling me, “Well, I would never buy a ticket to an opera or something like that.” [Laughter] Well, maybe you should. You know maybe you should, and bring someone with you. Bring young people, bring older people, get a group together, and go to the opera that you’re not performing in and support your colleagues. Pool your money or talk to the ticket office about a group rate. It really makes a difference and the only way that message is going to be spread is if we are proactive. There is a huge community out there where the arts actually matter enormously to them, but they don’t participate because they haven’t been invited in, and we can be the ambassadors for that. We can be the mentors for young people coming along. I think we need to smother young people with our love for this art form, and for the creation of it. Bring their ideas to the table. Listen to their ideas. Let them participate, and bring their families and friends along. I think that is something very good that can come out of all of this. But we the performers and creative people who are involved intimately with it, that is part of our job. It’s not just learning the music and standing on the stage. We each have to be an ambassador and a mentor.
TB: One of the things that you mentioned earlier was you’re finding some new time for videos. So what’s your video binge?
JH: I don’t have a single one. I get hysterical short videos from friends that I love. People are being so clever and creative through this whole thing. I’m loving the very short, funny surprising things that people are discovering. I’m loving like, the things that Ryan McKinny is doing with his friends, with J’Nai Bridges and Jamie Barton. They’re very funny. They’re very clever. They’re very human. It’s a very smart thing that he felt he could do. I love that other friends of mine are making an effort to create music from home and tune in. But I have to say that I’m so distracted now that most of the things that I’m really drawn to—even though I love those things—are very short, funny things. So, I don’t have a real platform. I’d say, it’s sharing. I think in the spirit of sharing, I’m appreciating that, because it connects me to my friends daily in a way that I normally wouldn’t. I’m really loving that.
Music By Jake Heggie
from Newer Every Day - # That I Did Always Love (Arr. for voice and orchestra)
About Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, It’s A Wonderful Life, If I Were You, Great Scott, Three Decembers and Two Remain, among others. He has also composed nearly 300 songs, as well as chamber, choral and orchestral works. The operas – most created with Terrence McNally or Gene Scheer – have been produced on five continents. Dead Man Walking (McNally) has been recorded twice and last year received its 70th international production, making it the most performed new opera of our time. New York’s Metropolitan Opera recently announced that it will produce Dead Man Walking during its 2020/21 season in a bold new production by director Ivo van Hove, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Moby-Dick (Scheer) was telecast throughout the United States as part of Great Performances’ 40th Season and released on DVD (EuroArts). Great Scott was a 2019 Grammy Award nominee for Best New Composition, Classical.The composer was awarded the Eddie Medora King prize from the UT Austin Butler School of Music and the Champion Award from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. A Guggenheim Fellow, Heggie has served as a mentor for the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and is a frequent guest artist at universities, conservatories and festivals throughout the USA and Canada. INTONATIONS: Songs for the Violins of Hope (Scheer) recently received a premiere and live recording. Upcoming are Songs for Murdered Sisters, a song cycle to new poems by Margaret Atwood, and Intelligence (Scheer), a new opera for the Houston Grand Opera. jakeheggie.com