A beloved staple of the holiday season in a new medium

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

Publicity still for CU Opera production of It’s a Wonderful Life. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

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 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.

But if you know the film, you should know that there have been a few changes for the opera. Heggie, Scheer and the CU team point out that opera is a very different medium than film. It has different needs and different strengths. In some ways, the story has to be condensed for the stage, with fewer characters and limited locations.

For example, George doesn’t crash his car in the opera.

But there is a trade-off. “In operas you can delve into the emotions of the characters more, with the music,” Holman says.

“In the opera we really get to know who Mary Hatch, George’s wife, is. Through her music we really get to know what a spunky, deep human being she is — something we don’t get as much in the movie.”

The operatic version also provides “a much better view of Mr. Potter, and just how persuasive his sociopathy can be,” Carthy notes, referring to the banker who wants to control the town of Bedford Falls and tries to lure George into working for him. 

“You get a wonderful duet between George and Mr. Potter, where Potter tries to seduce George to work for him. [It is] so smoothly done and so avuncular, this gentle pecking at somebody’s weakness without them knowing it.”

Heggie also singles out Mary and Mr. Potter as crucial to the story. “There are two characters who know exactly what they want,” he says. “Mary, who wants to be with George. She’s actually one of the heroes of that story. She’s so strong, the way she holds things together. And Mr. Potter, who wants to run the town. He knows George better than George knows himself. He’s been observing George his whole life.”

Unlike the film, the opera opens in George Bailey’s attic, which becomes a portal to all the events leading up to his Christmas Eve rescue. Another notable change for the opera is that the angel Clarence has become Clara, providing a female voice to partner musically with George and other characters.

After the performances in Houston, Heggie and Scheer made several additional changes to streamline the opera. “We cut a good 20 minutes out of the opera and then rewrote another 10 or 15 minutes of music,” Scheer says.

Heggie uses music throughout to link one part of the story to another, and to underline the characters’ emotions. One example is music from a duet between George and Mary that comes back at other points in the opera to show how their love ties them together. Other themes recur strategically as well.

One especially striking moment musically comes when Clara shows George what the town would be without him. This one you will have to experience in the theater, and it is one that Carthy particularly loves. “That whole scene is really, really touching,” he says. “Quite difficult to get through, really.”

But you don’t have to know these musical details to enjoy the opera, Holman says. “It’s just brilliant because there’s dance, there’s humor, there’s dark sides, there’s romance,” she says.

“You get it all in this piece.”  

ON THE BILL: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ an opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer — presented by CU Eklund Opera. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008,