From Two Composers, Many Songs

Janice Berman on April 24, 2007
There's an art to making an art song. Just ask Jake Heggie or Ricky Ian Gordon. Having each scored notable successes as opera composers, they'll share the bill on April 29, when Cal Performances presents "Theater in Song" at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Fabled mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and other guest singers will join them. Heggie and Gordon will preface the concert with a free talk, "The Composer's Way," at 7 p.m. on April 26 in the Seaborg Room of the Men's Faculty Club on campus. (For a preview, see the excellent online video talk by Heggie.) Although Heggie may be best known for Dead Man Walking, which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000, and Gordon's biggest success came with the premiere of The Grapes of Wrath at the Minnesota Opera earlier this year, both are prolific art-song composers. For At the Statue of Venus (2005), a "musical scene" that will receive its West Coast premiere this Sunday, Heggie collaborated with playwright Terrence McNally, who was also librettist for Dead Man Walking. Heggie will accompany lyric soprano Kristin Clayton on piano. Next, von Stade will sing one of the songs from Winter Roses, with lyrics she wrote. It's a tribute to the father she never met, who died in World War II. The final Heggie work is Here and Gone, another West Coast premiere, featuring the writings of A.E. Housman and Vachel Lindsay. There are 15 Gordon songs in the second half of the program. His poetic material includes the works of James Agee, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, and Frank O'Hara. In separate phone interviews recently, Heggie and Gordon talked about the upcoming show. Says Heggie, "At the Statue of Venus was commissioned from Terrence and myself in 2005 as a piece to celebrate the opening of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. McNally wrote the libretto in 45 minutes. He said, 'Why don't you go away for an hour,' and when I came back, he handed me this libretto."It wasn't quite that cut and dried, of course. The duo wanted to create an unusual entrance for their star soloist, who was to be Renée Fleming. "One of us said, 'What if she came in and said, 'Well, these slacks were a mistake.' That was even funnier because it was a gala."They decided she'd be on a blind date. But where? "We said, 'What about a shopping mall?' But then, since it was the opening of an opera house, we said, 'What about a house of art? That would be something sexy and mysterious.' So she arranged to meet a date next to the ideal of love, Venus. And then she decided to wear pants," Heggie says.That's the departure point for an inner journey from the superficial to the interior, from what's nervous-making to what really matters — a 22-minute tour. Blind date or not, says Heggie, it's an experience anyone can relate to: "You're waiting for a friend and they're late and you're feeling exposed, and naked, and pissed off."

A Substitute Triumphs

In Denver, Renée Fleming, who was ill, was replaced by Kristin Clayton, a friend of Heggie's who made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1994. "She brought the house down," Heggie says. "Every new piece, I always run it by her." Heggie views opera as "music that's inserted into drama." He says, "I really only write for singing actors who are trained in opera. When I do workshops, I tell my students, 'Think of yourself as a singing actor. If nothing else is going on — if we don't hear more than your singing voice — we don't really care.' " Heggie, who began studying piano at age 5, became an opera convert when he heard Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes. In 1994, working in the San Francisco Opera's public relations department as a writer during the reign of Lotfi Mansouri, Heggie became friends with Frederica von Stade. "She really inspired me," he says. He gave her four art songs he had written. She shared them with some friends, including Thomas Hampson and Bryn Terfel, "and they got programmed all over the world." He went from S.F. Opera PR man to SFO composer-in-residence, "totally a Cinderfella story," Heggie says with a laugh. Heggie will accompany von Stade in the 25-minute Winter Roses (2004), four songs from a cycle in which the singer tries to make sense of the loss of her father.
Frederica von Stade
Heggie and Gordon will play piano together to open Part II, Gordon's half of the show. "I decided since Jake was doing bigger pieces, it would be fun to use the four other singers and von Stade in many different ensembles, and sort of to direct my half," Gordon said by phone from Salt Lake City, where he was staging Grapes of Wrath for the Utah Grand Opera. "I did that last summer as the artist in residence at Chautauqua [Institution in upstate New York], and I liked where it went."

A Touch of the Poet

Gordon has numerous motivations for setting poetry to music: "There are thousands of fantastic opera singers who need material. They need composers who will write for them. I feel like I have a need to set those poems to music to order my universe." Apparently he strikes more than a chord: "I have four books of songs on their second and third printing," he says. "I can see myself writing about anything, and it feels very freeing to touch that. I was just at a big lunch for 100 women in Salt Lake City. We did an excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath. Everyone was sobbing when it was over. It was very moving. But it's such an injurious time. Virginia Tech, and yesterday was the single most violent day in Iraq. "Art is the life raft for the spirit," he continues. "If the spirit is in pain, art takes it to the shore. People need to feel elevated in this dark time." Gordon's choices for "Theater in Song" reflect both darkness and light. Three Floors is a setting of a poem by Stanley Kunitz about the poet's father, who shot himself in the head before his mother gave birth. Richard Nelson collaborated with Gordon on Sometimes, an excerpt from My Life With Albertine by Marcel Proust. There are slices of wry in Resume and The Red Dress from Dorothy Parker; Souvenir from Edna St. Vincent Millay; and New Moon from Langston Hughes. As a finale, von Stade joins with the other singers, who include sopranos Clayton and Marnie Breckenridge; mezzo Zheng Cao; tenor Nicholas Phan; and baritone Kyle Ferrill, in a rendition of Emily Dickenson's Will There Really Be a Morning? with Gordon and Heggie on piano.The two composers met in New York while readying a program, "Three Mezzos," for the 2002 Ravinia Festival. "We became instant friends," Gordon recalls. Says Heggie, "We're good foils for each other. Our music complements each other." Yes, Gordon acknowledges, sometimes they're competitors. "We joke about it and talk about it, but we also really need each other," he says. "The jealousy isn't worth not knowing each other."