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‘Moby-Dick’ Composer Jake Heggie at UNT

by Jerome Weeks 18 Feb 2011 7:39 AM

The triumph of ‘Moby-Dick’ was almost a year ago. But actually for the past three years, it seems as if composer Jake Heggie has barely had time to leave Texas — what with all the premieres, commissions and now, a residency at UNT.


heggie-rehearsal-22Composer Jake Heggie’s operas – including Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers and Moby-Dick – have kept the San Francisco resident repeatedly coming back to Texas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks caught up with Heggie in Denton – where he’s currently an artist-in-residence with the University of North Texas Institute for the Advancement of the Arts.

KERA radio story:

Expanded online story:

[sounds of Heggie talking in rehearsal, then piano playing by Chao-Hwa Lin — a slow, lovely, Baroque-sounding piece, the “Bridge Duet” from Three Decembers ]

Logan Walsh: “He’s been gone for more than 20 years.’

Jennifer Youngs: ‘Every corner I turn I still hope he’ll reappear.’

[the duet continues under]

Jennifer Youngs and Logan Walsh are UNT students singing from composer Jake Heggie’s chamber opera, Three Decembers. They play adult siblings longing to remember their father who died when they were children. This is Heggie’s great talent – making musical notes live as character and drama. Making music into theater. Heggie coaches the students on the scene’s emotional arc – how the sister Bea recalls their father reading in a chair. Yes, the chair, her younger brother says. It’s a rare, precious memory they can share.

Youngs: “I remember him there.”

Walsh: “Bea, really, I only remember — the chair.”

The rehearsal piano is a little out of tune, and the singers are a little self-conscious; it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this for Heggie. But he and a handful of listeners at UNT on the Square are teary-eyed. Heggie defuses the tension to loosen up the students.

Heggie: [talking to singers] “Right, so. I know, deflect, deflect, deflect. [Laughter] It’s feelings. Very bad. Feelings.  Oooh.”

Three Decembers began Heggie’s major ties with Texas when it was premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 2008. Fort Worth Opera staged Dead Man Walking the following year. Then it was Moby-Dick with the Dallas Opera. This month, Dead Man Walking was presented in Houston. And this coming April, Heggie will return to the Dallas Opera with a new song cycle featuring baritone Nathan Gunn.

Heggie: “Frankly, Texas is kind of a second creative, cultural home for me. So to do something at a university and create something new here, it felt very natural.”

Last year, as Heggie rehearsed Moby-Dick, James Scott, the dean of UNT’s college of music, approached the composer about a residency, about visiting Denton over the course of two semesters for a month and a  half to teach students in composition and voice.

To sweeten the deal, there was a commission for Heggie to write a premiere at the university. It’ll be Heggie’s first symphony, although he’s taking the opportunity of UNT’s many resources to make it a symphony with a full chorus of student singers and a soloist — the renowned tenor Richard Croft, who teaches at UNT.

The working title of the piece is ‘The Ahab Symphony’ – after the captain in Moby-Dick.

Heggie: “I was so in love with the whole process of writing Moby-Dick, it was such a joyful time in my life, and my whole musical and theatrical language grew so much that I felt like there was still a lot to say. There was so much great Ahab material that I still wanted to explore. ”

heggie-rehearsalBut The Ahab Symphony won’t be ready until April 2012. This week, Heggie is rehearsing students for Friday’s free recital at UNT’s recently remodeled Paul Voertman Concert Hall of solo songs and excerpts from his operas. And that, Heggie says, has been the real high point of his visits to Denton.

[Piano music from the “Bridge Duet” returns]

Heggie: “At this point in my career, almost nothing is more important to me than reaching out to students and young people and giving something back. I mean, I knew about the College of Music, but when I got here, when I actually experienced the level of students, I mean – I can’t quite believe it.”