An Affair to Remember
by D.L. Groover
Understandably excited and anxious over his March 4 Houston Grand Opera world premiere End of the Affair, openly gay composer Jake Heggie points out that he would much rather be in his hometown of San Francisco getting married.
“I’m aching that I’m not there. I’m so bummed,” he says. “I had no idea that city hall was going to allow gay people to get married in San Francisco this weekend [February 13–16]. I would’ve run down in a heartbeat because I know on Tuesday it’ll be over. I’m so glad that so many hundreds of people are rushing there. I’m so proud of our mayor [Gavin Newsom]. It’s tremendous. What an amazing environment. They’re going to have to deal with it head on.
“A lot of states have passed amendments that said marriage is only between a man and a woman. Fine. You can have your word. I don’t need your word. I just want my civil rights. You don’t have to be any religion to get married. Just go down to city hall and all of a sudden you’re guaranteed all these rights. Well, I’m a taxpayer. I have a loving committed relationship. We have a child. I would like to give those same protections to my child and my partner.”
Heggie happily describes his domestic relationship as a “very wonderful San Francisco 21st-century family.” Partner Curt Branom, now appearing in the West Coast cult hit Beach Blanket Babylon, is the biological dad of an eight-year-old son; mom is Branom’s best friend who wanted a child. All three have a shared stake in their child’s future.
“We’re going to see more and more of this kind of family,” Heggie predicts. “It seems like a natural step. What’s interesting is that it’s happening much more quickly than I ever thought. You know, when you get into a Constitutional argument, it’s pretty hard to defend any kind of discrimination. Even if they amend it, great, keep your word. I don’t need to call it marriage. I just want the right.”
Heggie apologizes for his unintentional passion over gay marriage, and explains that his real passion is music.
“My father committed suicide when I was 10, and music became my refuge and church, and I started composing from that moment wholeheartedly. I’ve always known that I needed to be in music somehow. I’m lucky to have known that from an early age. I can’t imagine not having passion about a career.”
Heggie’s burgeoning career stopped dead, though, during his late 20s, when he developed focal dystonia, a debilitating muscular degeneration that causes the fingers to curl. Known as “pianist’s cramps,” it abruptly ends all dreams of a career in music. Severely depressed, Heggie stopped composing and didn’t play the piano for over a year. By luck, he fell into a public-relations job at San Francisco Opera. For five years he underwent extensive rehab.
When he showed some of his early songs to famed mezzo Frederica von Stade, who had no idea Heggie was a composer, her positive response and request for a joint recital inspired him to compose again. Soon he was besieged for his music by the same singers he would chauffeur to interviews. The clamor led to the post of SFO resident composer and to Dead Man Walking, adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s book about capital punishment. The rapturous critical acclaim given that opera after its 2000 premiere spurred HGO to commission End of the Affair (through March 21 at Wortham Center).
“It’s a career I never, ever thought I would have. It’s a Cinderfella kind of story.”
Heggie’s impressive musical catalog includes, in addition to his two operas, numerous chamber pieces, a cello concerto, and a host of art songs and song cycles recorded by the stellar voices of our time. Currently, he is working with veteran playwright Terrence McNally, Dead Man Walking librettist, on an original musical set for 2005.
End of the Affair is based on Graham Greene’s celebrated semi-autobiographical 1951 novel of adultery and redemption. During the London blitz, Sarah, wife to bland bureaucrat Henry, has a torrid affair with writer Maurice. During one tryst, she brusquely calls it off. Years later and still in love with her, Maurice hires a detective to find out why she ended the affair.
“I deliberately try to do different projects,” Heggie says. “The scariest thing in art would be repeating yourself, becoming stagnant, predictable. If art doesn’t have surprise and freshness, it dies. I wanted to do something very different from Dead Man. Affair has six characters, no chorus, and a small orchestra. It had to be a very personal, intimate story, but I still wanted lots of things to happen, because in the theater, stuff has to happen on stage. The story seemed to have every element I respond to musically and was so innately operatic. It spoke to me.”
D. L. Groover writes monthly on the arts for the magazine.