ake 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.
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.
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.
The New Operatic Workshop was developed by Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera program, primarily as an educational program for students, even though its format and length offer a great opportunity for opera creators as well. As Holman explains it, “at the University of Colorado we feel if we don’t prepare our students to go out into the world prepared to do new work, it’s akin to malpractice. It’s essential for our students to be able to do this.”
The students are learning skills by tackling a brand new piece and working directly with the composer. “They’re able to experience what it was like when singers were working with Mozart,” Holman says.
At the same time, the composers and librettists are learning, too. “The goal is for us to come away knowing the piece much better and also finding where the fault lines are,” Scheer says, to which Heggie adds, “We are learning every day what the piece is.”
“The piece,” 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.
The devil gives the main character a magic phrase to sing that allows him to move into another person’s body and live as them as long as he wants. “He moves to the next person and the next person, but as he moves he loses a little bit of his original identity,” Heggie explains.
“A young woman who he’s in love with figures out what’s going on. He goes back to his original body and it’s dying. He’s faced with the existential choice: Am I going to live forever pretending to be someone else, or am I going to die as myself?”
If I Were You was commissioned by the Merola Opera Program, a summer apprenticeship program for young singers that was founded in 1957 at the San Francisco Opera. Graduates of the program include some of the most successful opera singers of recent generations, including Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson and Kevin Langan — who will appear this summer as Sarastro in Central City Opera’s Magic Flute.
The plot is derived from a little-known French novel by Julien Green. Heggie had heard about the novel several years ago and thought of it because it seemed ideal for the Merola commission. “It makes sense for young [singers] who are on an identity quest in their lives,” he says. “And because this soul keeps moving from person to person, six singers become the lead character.”
The performances at CU will not be staged because at this point in the compositional process, Heggie and Scheer didn’t want to spend time on stage rehearsals; their focus is entirely on making the music and the text work in performance. The singers will be standing behind music stands, and will be accompanied by piano.
Heggie and Scheer say they do not yet know which portions of the opera would be performed. That too will depend on what they learn about the piece thorough the workshop process. Whatever they decide to perform, they will introduce the musical excerpts to the audience and explain the plot as they go along.
Speaking for himself and Scheer, Heggie says they are “incredibly grateful for [Holman’s] vision and her generosity and kindness. We’re both very fortunate to have had wonderful careers, and to give something back to these young people is incredibly gratifying.”
On the Bill: CU New Opera Workshop presents If I Were You (selected excerpts) — with libretto by Gene Scheer, music by Jake Heggie. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 17, Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building, 1020 18th St., Boulder. Free.
Composer Fellows’ Initiative. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, ATLAS Blackbox, 1125 18th St., Boulder. Free.