“Dead Man Walking”, Jake Heggie’s first opera, received international acclaim and has been performed in many opera houses internationally, including the New York City Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, and others. It will make its Cape Town debut on October 16, 22 and 24 (PG 16N) in a production by Cape Town Opera. Heggie has written over 150 songs, and American Soprano Judith Kellock and I will be performing some of these in a recital entitled “Paper Wings” at the Baxter Concert Hall, Monday 3 August at 13h00. Other works in the programme include “Four American Songs” by South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk, the song cycle “Try Me, Good King” by Libby Larsen, and a selection by Samuel Barber.
When asked why he leans toward vocal writing, Heggie says: “The voice still takes my breath away. It is the most expressive, most magical instrument ever. The inspiration comes from the voice. It brings tears to my eyes when I hear a great voice. And I love American English, too. It is a very expressive language”. (Meredith Ziegler, Journal of singing, Jan-Feb 2008)
Frederica von Stade: Heggie’s muse?
Jake Heggie composed “Paper Wings” in 1997. This set of four songs was commissioned by internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade as a gift for her daughter, Lisa. The careers of Heggie and von Stade have intertwined for over 25 years and their creative alliance is marked by a series of revelatory songs and roles. He originally conceived the role of Sister Prejean in “Dead Man Walking” for her, she created the role of the convict’s mother, and she takes the lead role in his opera “Three Decembers” based on a play by Terrence McNally. Their recent collaborations include song cycles such as “Statuesque”, “Rise and Fall” and “Friendly Persuasions”. Von Stade has become a staunch Heggie supporter and ally, performing and championing his music wherever possible. He is quick to acknowledge his love and affection for her as a person and an artist. After the huge success of “Dead Man Walking”, Heggie composed “Winter Roses”, a poetic eight-song cycle based on letters written by von Stade’s father, who died during World War II, just months before she was born. Incidentally, these letters also form the basis of the vocal symphony “Elegies”, by Richard Danielpour in the vein of “Das Lied von der Erde”.
Paper Wings (Piano Version 1997 – Orchestral Version 2000)
1. Bedtime Story
2. Paper Wings
3. Mitten Smitten
4. A Route to the Sky
A tender portrait of the relationship between von Stade and her daughter, “Paper Wings” is a setting of poetry written by von Stade herself based on episodes from her and her daughter’s own life.
1. Bedtime Story
As a child, Von Stade’s daughter Lisa would fall asleep to her mother’s lullabies, and her favourite was the “Brezairola” from Jospeh Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne”, which her mother had sung and recorded many times. The song cycle opens with a quotation from the song, as if the mother is trying to put her child to sleep. Unsuccessfully, it seems, and she starts to tell her stories about their life. Easy lyricism is underlined by gently rocking chords. The harmonies are warm and there are resonances of Samuel Barber in the gentle melodiousness. The words are absolutely delightful, telling how little Lisa once snuck into the room with a blanket over her head, hoping that, as she couldn’t see the grown-ups, naturally they couldn’t see her. While the song is initially “about” a lullaby, it “is” not a lullaby. Brisk passages and sections titled “Startled” describe the parents’ initial surprised responses to the three year old intruder. “Oh, magic, magic child” writes von Stade. “You stayed, we smiled”.
2. Paper Wings
The second song is a story from von Stade’s own childhood in Greece, in which her nanny – confusingly named Signorina, makes her a set of paper wings with which to fly over the rooftops of Athens. A bubbly Allegretto, the song trots along in a jolly 6/8 time. It displays the same clear sense of form found in many of Heggie’s works. The first section in C minor, introduces the nanny and their life in Greece. In the gentler middle section, staccatos are replaced by flowing white notes, and the occasional colour-chromatic F# is all that disturbs the calm of C Major. New material in B Flat describes the joy and exuberance of the child pretending to fly above the rooftops of Athens (while the singer does the same above the stave!) A neat little coda which recalls the opening material, rounds off this little gem with the lightness implied by the title.
3. Mitten Smitten
Lisa did not quite know what to make of this gift from India. Unaccustomed to wearing mittens, she did not know where to put her fingers. The song uses a raised 4th to create a slightly “oriental” atmosphere and emphasises the young girl’s incomprehension of these strange artefacts. A recurring motif recalls the Hugo Wolf of “Nachtzauber” and helps to draw the listener in to the child’s world. A delightful song, I can not wait to see how its theatricality translates in performance. The composer/director gives directions to the singer to act out looking at the hands, while the piano gives perplexed and unhurried commentary.
4. A Route to the Sky
The final song of the set tells of when von Stade and Lisa were stuck on the rooftop of their house and the firemen came to get them down. A reference to Beethoven’s “Für Elise” opens the song. The influence of jazz and ragtime is felt throughout this song. Syncopation and accent on the off-beats create a playful, jazzy feel. The performer also is given liberties similar to that of jazz performers: eighth notes can be swung and notated rhythms are not intended to be sung straight. Based on a blues scale, the song has an irrepressible sense of humour. Heggie flows comfortably from the voice fo the mother to that of the daughter, and often these shifts are accompanied by clear changes of key. The daughter tells – in a sentimental and rather wistful C minor- of the exciting day that she got stuck on the roof and had to be saved by firemen. The mother’s version of the same events is rather more urgent, and in A-flat minor.
Again Heggie’s theatrical sense of shape is evident. In a presto section – with sounds conjuring up the heightened drama of American Silent Movie Music – in which mother goes after daughter, to rescue her down from the roof. At one point the singer yells “Lisa! -Don’t move!” as the sung line alone can no longer convey the intensity of the moment, and a dramatic pause marked “frozen” is very effective. A rather raunchy version of “Für Elise” describes the commotion caused by the two, and a certain starry-eyed awe at having to be saved off the roof by two trucks full of firemen!
I have only come across Heggie in small bits and pieces on recital discs of American art-song, or in large chunks, such as the very powerful “Dead Man Walking”. Thrilled as I am to be able to see this opera live in Cape Town in October, I am even more excited at the prospect of performing some of his music . And to have an acclaimed performer and expert on American art-song such as Judith Kellock to sing my first exploration of his music, is simply thrilling.
Judith Kellock: Brief CV
Associate Professor, M.M., Boston University, 342 Lincoln Hall, 255-3424
Soprano Judith Kellock is an active performer in recital, chamber music and concert repertory, with a specialization in contemporary music. She is a founding member of Ensemble X, Cornell’s professional new-music ensemble and performs regularly on campus in recital, oratorio, and chamber music. She has been featured with orchestras throughout the United States, including the St. Louis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Honolulu Symphony, and has performed in Italy, Greece, France and Belgium. Recent festival performances include Stockbridge Chamber Concerts, Windham Chamber Concerts, and SongFest, where she is on the performing faculty. Ms. Kellock has recordings on the Koch International, Albany, Gasparo, and Fleur de Son labels and gives frequent master classes in conjunction with her recitals world-wide.
Heggie’s new opera “Moby Dick”, was commissioned Dallas Opera. Here Music Director Graeme Jenkins lectures to SMU Music Students about the upcoming World Premiere of Jake Heggie’s latest opera and the struggles of commissioning a new production.