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March 13, 2008

For an Operatic Life, Check Out the Composers

HOUSTON Lethal injection. Suicide. Heartbreak. Obsession. And Jake Heggie is only now getting around to his own story. With his latest commission, Last Acts, now onstage as Houston Grand Operas 37th world premiere, and Moby-Dick in the works for the Dallas Opera, Mr. Heggie best known for his adaptation of Dead Man Walking continues his exploration of dark themes. That is an unlikely preoccupation for a prolific composer whom collaborators describe as sweet-spirited. Hes one of the dearest, gentlest souls God ever put on this earth, said Frederica von Stade, the mezzosoprano whom Mr. Heggie had in mind when he and his frequent librettist, Gene Scheer, created Last Acts, from a sketch by the playwright Terrence McNally. Ms. von Stade portrays Madeline Mitchell, a glamorous music-hall star alienated from her children: an unhappily married alcoholic daughter and a gay son grieving for his dying partner. At the end of the opera they learn cruelly from their mother that their father was not a beloved provider killed years before in a car accident, but a shiftless drunk who threw himself under a train. Kristin Clayton, a soprano, performs as the daughter, Bea, and Keith Phares, a baritone, plays the son, Charlie. Patrick Summers, music director of Houston Grand Opera, conducts and plays a piano in the 10piece orchestra opposite Mr. Heggie, who plays the other piano. Every composer should sit in the pit and see what its like to perform his own opera, Mr. Heggie said. It sounded like a great idea at the time, he added, seeming no longer so sure. Its the first time I performed in one of my operas. Its frustrating. I never get to see or hear the piece. I have to think as a performer. I cant listen to the singing. Performances began Feb. 29 and run though Saturday. The work is to travel this fall to the San Francisco Opera and three other companies yet to be announced, Mr. Heggie said. For those productions, the opera has been renamed Three Decembers, a title that Mr. Heggie, 46, said better fits the work since the story unfolds over three decades, beginning in 1986. Critics for The Wall Street Journal, The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News were underwhelmed by the Houston production, calling the opera awkward, uninspiring, problematic, simplistic and sappy, among the kinder adjectives. Was he bothered? Of course, Mr. Heggie said. He usually holds off reading reviews, leaving the task to his partner, Curt Branom, a San Francisco actor and singer, who conveys their gist while sparing the details. I cant get the specific language in my head, he said, because I cant get it out. Dead Man Walking, which opened in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera, has received mixed notices over the years. But many of Mr. Heggies other works have met with more acclaim. These include End of the Affair, from the Graham Greene novel, which opened in Houston in 2004, and To Hell and Back, a retelling of the Persephone myth as a musically baroque tale of domestic abuse written for Patti LuPone, first performed in Mountain View, Calif., in 2006, as well as many songs for Ms. von Stade and others. Last Acts was particularly personal, Mr. Heggie said. He was 10 when his father, an Army doctor

and amateur saxophone player who had served in Japan during World War II and was struggling with depression, left their house outside Columbus, Ohio, one day and vanished. They found him three days later in a field where he had shot himself. Jakes mother, a nurse, had to break the news to him and his two older sisters. At 13 or so he realized he was different. I didnt know what or how to call it, he said of his homosexuality, a stigma, like his fathers suicide, in small-town Ohio. His mother moved the family to the Bay Area, although she, unlike the Maddy of Last Acts, always accepted his orientation. A great double whammy, he said of his fathers death and his sexual confusion. He had been studying the piano since age 5, he said, and threw himself into music. After two years in Paris, he returned at 20 to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, with the pianist Johana Harris, the widow of the composer Roy Harris and herself a prodigy who had taught at Juilliard at 15. She was the first person who saw something in me, Mr. Heggie said. He was 21, she 70. Improbably, they wed in 1982. It raised eyebrows, Mr. Heggie noted, but people who knew us understood completely. Did she know he was gay? She knew, he said, but she didnt want to know. They were together, on and off, for 11 years until 1993, two years before her death. In 1988 a neurological disorder, focal dystonia, curled Mr. Heggies right hand into a ball, curtailing his piano-playing. He underwent therapy and had to relearn his technique. Meanwhile, he was chosen from 350 applicants for a job in the public-relations department of the San Francisco Opera, a slot once held by Armistead Maupin. He dazzled his friend Flicka Ms. von Stade, who likes to be known by her nickname and wrote songs for her and other divas. Struck by his talent, Lotfi Mansouri, then the San Francisco operas general director, asked him to write an opera to usher in the new millennium. He had a comedy in mind, Mr. Heggie recalled. He and Mr. McNally teamed up, agreeing on the perfect project: Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejeans redeeming tale of death row. Autobiography played a part in adapting the McNally sketch that became Last Acts. Told through an exchange of Christmas letters and calls between the son and daughter, it left the fathers death mysterious. But, Mr. Heggie recalled, Mr. Scheer, the librettist, gingerly proposed something more dramatic. Like a suicide? anticipated Mr. Heggie. I think so, Mr. Scheer replied. But I wanted to see what you thought. Mr. Heggie agreed. I wrote it in four and a half months, he said. It was time for me to explore that part of my life.