Composer Jake Heggie will bring ‘Intelligence’ to Grusin Hall

CU New Opera Workshop will preview new opera written for Houston Grand Opera

By Peter Alexander June 15 at 11:30 p.m.

Six years ago composer Jake Heggie was in the Smithsonian Institution when a docent told him what his next opera should be.

The composer of the successful operas Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life, Heggie usually has no trouble finding his own subjects. “My first response was ‘Yay! I’ve never heard that before!’” he says. But six years later, Intelligence, his opera based on that very idea, is being workshopped at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in preparation for its premiere in a future season of the Houston Grand Opera. 

Composer Jake Heggie (L) and librettist Gene Scheer (R)
Photo by David Starry

As Heggie tells the story, “We were [at the Smithsonian] doing some events, and this docent pulls me aside. He said ‘Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser?’ I said no, and he goes ‘You need to look them up, and that should be your next opera.’ And he walked away.”

Heggie and Scheer started doing research into the two women, and the more they learned the more interested they became. Heggie recalls, “I started Googling and I was like ‘Gee!’ And I remember Gene calling me and saying, ‘Jake, it’s an incredible story!’”

The two women were spies for the Union during the Civil War. Van Lew was a white abolitionist living in Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. Bowser—who went by several names including Mary Jane Richards—was a former slave of the Van Lew family who had been freed, educated in the North, and then travelled to Liberia in Africa as a missionary. She returned to Virginia, even though her freedom there was illegal, and joined a spy ring operated by Van Lew.

As women, they were able to operate without raising suspicion—no one expected women to be dangerous. That was doubly true for Richards/Bowser, who was virtually invisible in the Southern society of the time so long as she acted like an uneducated slave. On one occasion she went into the Confederate White House on the pretext of collecting laundry and managed to read the papers in Jefferson Davis’s study. What she read there was passed on to Union generals.

“Her story, aside from the aspect of being a spy, is just amazing,” Scheer says. “We are weaving various aspects of her life and Van Lew’s life, focused on the Civil War. There are pivotal points that are known historical facts that we could thread together. And these facts became the springboard for us to create the story.”

Early on Heggie realized that one thing was missing for the opera. “We needed to have not only a woman’s perspective, but we needed and African-American woman’s perspective, because we are two white guys,” he explains. 

“I thought, what if this had an element of movement and dance? I started thinking about the dance world and I called friends and I said, ‘Do you know of a choreographer/director or a company that would be right for an opera that is a hybrid of these things?’”

L-R: Heggie, Scheer, and Jawole Will Jo Zollar at a rehearsal on the CU campus. Photo by David Starry.

They all gave Heggie the same name: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of the dance troupe Urban Bush Women. He wrote her an email to ask if she would be interested. She was in the middle of other projects so could not respond immediately, but once she talked to Heggie she was drawn in.

“I became so intrigued by not only the story, but their point of view and what they wanted to do,” Zollar says. “It felt  right for me, and it also felt like the right time for me to engage in a project like that.”

Heggie is thrilled at the contributions Zollar makes to the project. When they began the workshop, he says, “it became even clearer, first of all, this is exactly right, and everyone was right to tell us exactly the right person. We hit it off and liked each other right away. She is helping conceive the whole thing.”

“We all have different perspectives from our lived experiences, individually, and then our history collectively,” Zollar says. “That’s what I bring with me. What I was really intrigued by was Mary Jane as this woman who had been freed, which means that there is a certain way of carriage in her body, and now is in a house where she is enslaved, and so she has to carry that. I’m intrigued by her ability to code switch.”

The workshop has involved the dancers from Urban Bush Women, who have gotten together for the first time since the pandemic. This return to working in person has made CU NOW a joyful as well as intense time for the participants.

Scenes from Intelligence will be performed in run-throughs Friday, June 18, and Sunday, June 20. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer will be present and will participate in talkback sessions after the performances. In addition to the CU students who are singing most of the parts, three guest artists fill roles that did not fit any of the current students: Jasmine Habersham and Raehann Bryce-Davis are singers affiliated with Houston Grand Opera, and Aaron Jenkins is a CU alumnus.

CU NOW was started in 2010 by Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman as an educational experience for the students. “It has been said that this is the golden age of American opera,” she says. “I feel if we don’t educate our students about creating new opera, it’s akin to malpractice.

“CU NOW was started, and I keep it going, for the education of our students.”

Often, as the composer hears their piece being performed, they decide to change parts of the score, or the singers may suggest ideas that improve a given vocal line or part. The composer might make the change on the spot, and ask the student to learn the new music for the next day’s rehearsal.

“Our students never had that experience before CU NOW,” Holman says. “Never before had they been given a brand new piece of music and told, ‘learn this by tomorrow.’ They can’t listen to a recording of how to do it, so it has really built their skills.”

Today most major opera companies are doing new works. CU NOW has given students the experience to successfully learn new works, and several graduates of the program have sung premieres or workshops at Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and other companies. 

“That’s why we started this,” Holman says.

Singers rehearsing Heggie and Scheer’s Intelligence for CU NOW. Photo by David Starry.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the readings of excepts from Intelligence are open to the general public. They are not. Due to campus-wide COVID restrictions, attendance is by invitation only.

A beloved staple of the holiday season in a new medium

Eklund Opera brings ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to the Macky stage

By Peter Alexander

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Photo by Glenn Asakawa for the University of Colorado Eklund Opera Program

It’s a Wonderful Life, a new opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, started its performance life with a workshop at CU Boulder in 2016, then went to its world premiere in Houston, followed by performances in Indiana and San Francisco, and now it returns to Boulder.

Based on the much loved film of the same title, the opera will be presented this weekend (Nov. 15–17) in a completely new production by the CU Eklund Opera Program. The student orchestra will be conducted by Nick Carthy. Leigh Holman, head of Eklund Opera, will direct the student cast.

“To take it home to Boulder is special, because we workshopped it there, and made so many artistic decisions in the process of creating it there,” Scheer says.

It’s a Wonderful Life was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, Indiana University and San Francisco Opera. Essentially the same production was used in all three locations. After Houston, Scheer and Heggie trimmed, streamlined and improved the opera in various ways. Eklund Opera will therefore present only the second physical production in the latest version of the opera.

The opera follows the basic story of the film, which tells of George Bailey’s despair and thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve. He is rescued by an angel who shows him all the people he has touched in his life, and what his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been without him. The 1946 film, directed by Frank Capra, has become a beloved staple of the holiday season.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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It’s a Wonderful Life
An opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer
CU Eklund Opera

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

 

CU NOW presents selections from new opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer

If I Were You’ addresses questions of identity, life and death

By Peter Alexander June 14 at 6:30 p.m.

Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, and Gene Scheer, who wrote librettos for Heggie’s Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life, are hard at work again.

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CU NOW Rehearsal. L to R: Erin Hodgson, assistant to the composer and librettist; Gene Scheer, librettist; Jake Heggie, composer (photo by Glenn Asakawa)

Their latest project, an opera that addresses existential questions about identity, life and death, has brought them to Boulder and CU Eklund Opera’s New Operatic Workshop (CU NOW). Selected excerpts from the new work, If I Were You, will be presented to the public for free, performed by CU student singers.  The Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CFI), a separate project of CU NOW will present four short operas by CU composition students: three 8-minute works and one 30-minute work.

CU NOW invites a composer and librettist every year to come to Boulder for a couple of weeks in June as they develop a new opera and work with student singers. The composers have the opportunity to hear portions of their own work and make changes as necessary before it’s complete. As part of his association with CU NOW, Heggie has also been working with the students whose works will be presented by the Composer Fellows’ Initiative.

If I Were You, as Heggie describes it, is “a modern-day Faust story” with an overlay of Gothic romance. “It’s about a disillusioned young man who wishes he could be anyone else,” he says. Heggie and Scheer will decide which portions of the opera to perform during the workshop. They will introduce the musical excerpts to the audience and explain the plot as they go along.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU New Opera Workshop festival (CU NOW)
Leigh Holman, director
Jeremy Reger, director of music

 

If I Were You (selected excerpts)
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Music by Jake Heggie
Adam Turner, guest conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 17
Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building

Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CU NOW—CFI)
Daniel Kellogg, managing director
Four short operas by student composers
Steven Aguillo, guest music director
Bud Coleman, stage director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16
ATLAS Blackbox, Roser ATLAS Center

Performances free and open to the public

 

 

Renowned composer Jake Heggie is working on his newest opera in Boulder

“It’s a Wonderful Life” at the CU New Opera Workshop

By Peter Alexander

It’s a wonderful life for composer Jake Heggie right now.

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Left to Right: Libretist Gene Scheer; Leonard Foglia, Houston Grand Opera; composer Jake Heggie; and Bradley Moore, Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Alexandria Ortega for CU Presents.

As the composer of two highly successful operas, Dead Man Walking (2000) and Moby Dick (2010), he finds that commissions for his works keep coming.

“People keep asking me,” he says. “A commission is a huge gift.”

Now he is in Boulder to work on his latest opera, based on Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Joining him for work at the CU New Opera Workshop, (CU NOW) are librettist Gene Scheer and staff from the Houston Grand Opera, where the finished opera will have its premiere in December.

Under Leigh Holman, director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, CU NOW offers composers the opportunity to workshop new operas prior to their first productions. For more than two weeks, they can try out their new works with CU student singers and other support staff, seeing what works and what doesn’t, making changes as they go.

After 18 days of intensive work, CU NOW will present performances of selected scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 19, in the ATLAS Black Box Theater. Between those two performances, CU NOW will also present scenes by CU student composers at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 18) in the Imig Music Theatre. All three performances are free and open to the public.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW)

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Rehearsal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at CU NOW. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Workshop: It’s a Wonderful Life by
Jake Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17
2 p.m. Sunday, June 19
ATLAS Black Box Theater, CU Roser ATLAS Building

Composers Fellows’ Initiative
Performances of student opera compositions

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building

Performances are free and open to the public

 

 

Jake Heggie will be the 2016 guest composer for CU NOW

Composer of Dead Man Walking will workshop new opera at CU

By Peter Alexander

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Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie, a composer who achieved considerable renown in 2000 with his opera Dead Man Walking, will visit the University of Colorado College of Music for three weeks in June.

Heggie will be in Boulder to develop a new opera at the Eklund Opera Program’s CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW). The new work, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, will be based on the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

At the end of the workshop period, portions of the new work will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday , June 19, in the ATLAS Black Box Theater, located in the basement of the Roser ATLAS Building on the CU campus. These performances will be free and open to the public.

Seating will be first come, first served. The ATLAS Black Box Theater seats approximately 80–100.

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Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

It’s a Wonderful Life has been commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera (HGO). The workshop process will allow Heggie and Scheer to work with CU students, trying portions of the new opera, making changes and rewriting as they go. Leonard Foglia, director of the HGO who will stage direct the world premier of It’s a Wonderful Life in Houston, will also be working with the student singers during the workshop, along with Jeremy Reger, a vocal coach with the CU Eklund Opera Program.

At the end of the workshop performances, the composer and librettist will ask for questions and feedback from the audience. Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program, says “These workshops are for the intellectually curious. With the question and answer sessions, the creative team learns so much from the people asking the questions!”

Dead Man Walking, with a libretto by playwright Terence McNally based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, took the operatic world by storm in 2000. His other operatic works have included Three Decembers (libretto by Scheer, 2008), Moby Dick (libretto by Scheer, 2010), and Great Scott (libretto by McNally, 2015).

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Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk, Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking has been presented more than 50 times around the world. It was produced by CU in 2007 and by Central City Opera in 2014. Central City Opera also presented Heggie’s Three Decembers in 2010.

One of the busiest opera librettists working today, Scheer has collaborated with several prominent composers. In addition to the work he has done with Heggie, his works include An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, and last year’s Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, premiered at the Santa Fe Opera.

This will be the seventh year for the CU NOW program. Previous operas that were developed through a CU NOW workshop have included Kirke Mechem’s Pride and Prejudice, Herschel Garfein’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Alberto Caruso’s The Master, and Zach Redler’s A Song for Susan Smith.