For a 21st-century classical composer, Jake Heggie has been an unusually successful man. When is the last time a living composer had operas scheduled in both Dallas and Fort Worth? Ever? Heggie’s Dead Man Walking will be produced by the Fort Worth Opera in May. The Dallas Opera will premiere his Moby-Dick in the new Winspear Opera House in April 2010.
On Tuesday Heggie took time out from working on Moby-Dick with librettist Gene Scheer to pay a visit to Fort Worth. He was at the Kimbell Art Museum for a little socializing, a discussion of Dead Man Walking and to hear a bit of his own music performed.
Although Heggie is approaching 50 (he was born in 1961), he still seems boyish. He is a friendly man, and his pleasing personality may have helped kick off his career. Before he became known as a composer, he worked in the public-relations department of the San Francisco Opera and became friendly with many of the big-name artists passing through. This may help explain why the likes of Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade were willing to take roles in the premiere of Dead Man Walking, the work that shot him to prominence in 2000.
Dead Man Walking has since been performed more than a hundred times in the United State and overseas and has inspired some rave reviews (the critic of the Guardian in London wrote “Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story more than 40 years ago”). Perhaps more impressive than the numerous first performances in various houses are the revivals. Dresden’s SemperOper in Germany is scheduled to present it for the third season this year. The work has also been recorded.
Dead Man Walking is based on a book by a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who befriended a condemned killer in Louisiana. Heggie said Tuesday that he and his librettist, playwright Terrence McNally, weren’t trying to steer the audiences’ sympathies in any particular direction but were trying to present the story in its complexities and let the audiences draw their own conclusions. It’s apparent from the beginning of the opera that the killer is guilty, and though much of the focus is on the nun and the murderer, the parents of the two murder victims also have roles.
Performances of two powerful arias on Tuesday promised some intense moments to come when Fort Worth stages Dead Man Walking.