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Rising young American composer Jake Heggie returns to Houston to premiere his new opera, ‘Last Acts,’ an emotional tale of a mother and her children.

By Rich Arenschieldt
Photos by Terrence McCarthy

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Composer Jake Heggie

Continuing its rich tradition of presenting intriguing world premieres, including two this season, Houston Grand Opera brings back gay composer Jake Heggie, presenting his chamber opera Last Acts (through March 15), featuring operatic icon Fredericka von Stade in the title role. Last Acts is an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s unpublished play Some Christmas Letters, which chronicles the emotionally charged life of an actress and her son and daughter.

Heggie, who lives in San Francisco, is most famous for his first opera, Dead Man Walking, which premiered in 2000 (also created in conjunction with McNally). Heggie’s work was last heard here in 2004 in a world premiere production of his The End of the Affair, a sexy operatic adaptation of the book by Graham Greene, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera (HGO) with Madison Opera and Opera Pacific. Last Acts is smaller and more theatrical in scope than those works, comprising three characters who are accompanied by a 10-piece onstage orchestra.

This cast promises to be easy on the eyes and ears. Mezzo-soprano von Stade (Madeline, the mother) needs little introduction, since her musical appearances in Houston span three decades. She was last seen here descending a three-story evaporating staircase in the edgy production of Coronation of Poppea . Baritone Keith Phares (Charlie, her son) was a finalist in the HGO Eleanor McCollum Competition and is making his main stage debut. Recently, his movie-star looks were put to use (in various stages of undress) at the brash production of the Gluck opera Merlin’s Island at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Kristin Clayton (Madeline’s daughter, Beatrice) made her debut in the recent HGO production of The Magic Flute as one of the hilarious trio of ladies-in-waiting to the vampy Queen of the Night. Clayton has known Heggie since the 1990s and, like von Stade, has a voice that inspires the composer to create new works for her.

As Heggie has risen to prominence within the operatic world, he has maintained a close group of artistic collaborators, many of whom have contributed to Last Acts . “Working with the same people continually helps me a great deal,” Heggie said in a recent telephone interview. “No matter what endeavor you are involved in, everyone needs to have good artists to collaborate with in order to achieve optimal results.”

As Heggie’s work has entered the international musical mainstream, his output has expanded in scope. “I like to take on different subjects and projects that challenge me, and with this group of artistic partners we have created a wonderful collaborative partnership which allows that to happen. Everyone’s work is improved by participation in this collective endeavor. As an artist you always seek people who raise the bar to expand your creative results.

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Rehearsing Last Acts: (l–r) Keith Phares, Frederica von Stade, and Kristin Clayton.

“There is such a level of trust between all of us. If anyone has questions, they bring them to the table. The love and admiration that we have for each other gives us an incredible level of comfort with which to pursue the artistic process. With this creative team and with the singers who realize this music, I am able to be extremely productive and creative—essentially unfettered and free to compose.”

Much of Heggie’s inspiration has come from the leading ladies of his life—first from his musical mentor and teacher, pianist Johana Harris, to whom he was once married, and secondly from Fredericka “Flicka” von Stade.

“I knew Flicka from my early days at San Francisco Opera,” he said. “I had written some folk songs for her as a gift, and soon after that she started to champion my work. We have been working together on various projects ever since.”

Von Stade is not only a musical companion for Heggie, but she also serves an important role model. “As a person and an artist, she lives her life from a very generous, joyful, and creative perspective,” Heggie said. “Flicka recognizes all the weaknesses and frailties that people possess and simultaneously realizes the good in everyone. She has an incredible clarity and perspective in her approach toward life. Last Acts would not exist without her inspiration and artistry.”

Another of Heggie’s constant collaborators is McNally, the renowned gay playwright (The Lisbon Traviata, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Love! Valour! Compassion!), who lived as a child in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Terrence had written a short 14-page play for a one-time benefit performance in 1999,” Heggie says. “I asked to read the play and immediately knew that I wanted to musicalize the work and that the lead role of Madeline was perfect for von Stade. The play was so touching and beautiful. It just read so true to me. When Flicka read it, she had the same reaction. Since then she and I have been on this seven-year journey to get this piece to the stage.”

While McNally’s script provided a textural framework for Last Acts , Heggie turned to frequent collaborator and librettist Gene Scheer to expand the piece and realize it operatically. “Much of the libretto comes from the original work,” Heggie said, “but Gene’s additional contributions are very intelligent and insightful—completely in keeping with the spirit of McNally’s script. In Last Acts there are three characters enduring three deaths over three decades. Terrence was masterful at weaving all of these things together within such a brief piece, and Gene’s additional contributions are amazing as well.”

Last Acts shares similarities with Heggie’s other works in that many of his characters are searching for identity, belonging or closure in some form or fashion. In Dead Man Walking , the perpetrator, a convicted murderer on death row, seeks absolution. In The End of The Affair , the adulterer seeks redemption. In Last Acts , a family craves connection to replace truncated lifelong relationships predicated upon a deceit.

Within the tightly constructed framework of Last Acts, the Madeline character maintains a certain identity throughout her life to assure the emotional survival of her family. In the final analysis, Heggie says, “One of the most powerful components of the opera is that Madeline creates in her words ‘a version of our lives that this family can live with.’”

On Stage

Houston Grand Opera presents Last Acts through March 15 in the Cullen Theater at Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater. Details and tickets: www.houstongrandopera.org . The date for the OUT mixer for Jake Heggie’s Last Acts is March 13. The mixer begins at 6:30 at the Wortham Center and everyone that attends will get a ticket to the performance for only $35 (almost half price).

Rich Arenschieldt reported on the controversy over concierge care in Houston for OutSmart‘s December issue.

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Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.

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