One singer’s tale of working with Jake Heggie
by Laura Begley
Every time I start working with a piece of music whether it be old or new, I can’t help but wish I could ask the composer a few “clarifying” questions. “Excuse me, Mr. Bellini, was it necessary to give the mezzo-soprano two high C’s?” “Is there a reason you chose Gertrude Stein as the librettist for this piece, or were you just going for a text that would make everyone involved confused, Mr. Thomson?” There are of course positive remarks I’d love to make too. “I simply love this piece and cannot wait to figure out every dissonant tone, Mr. Argento.” The thing is, most of the composers who could help you dissect, interpret, and explain the piece aren’t exactly around for the asking (even if they were, why in the world would they care to spend time with some lowly graduate student?) That’s why having the opportunity to work with or observe a living composer is one of the most amazing and valuable experiences a singer, instrumentalist, or composer could ever have.
I couldn’t believe my luck last year to have one of the best opera composers of our day, Jake Heggie, as a composer-in-residence at my graduate school (University of North Texas). With operas like Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, and of course Dead Man Walking, amazing song cycles, and fresh from the grand debut of his latest opera Moby Dick, he is at the forefront of American composition. He is also not exactly someone I thought I could just walk up and talk to, and being able to call up his pals Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Joyce DiDonato, etc. didn’t make him seem any more approachable.
The week Jake Heggie came to UNT, everyone was constantly talking about him; it was a big sighting to have seen him in the hallway. His first recital was awe-inspiring and his masterclass for the vocal department was amazing. Not only was he invaluable when talking about his own music, but he was so well connected to EVERY selection that was sung. His level of musicality wasn’t just enlightening to me though, it was frightening because a list of students (including myself) were selected for individual coachings and for me the month leading up to it were spent in agitation wondering what would happen when I entered the room.
To explain my level of anxiety I have to explain that I had chosen Jake Heggie’s set (because when will I have the chance again to work the piece with the composer!) The Deepest Desire (which is beyond amazing- look it up) and had decided at the very last second to switch from the 4th piece of the set to the lengthy 3rd title piece. Thirty-ish minutes later I left the room with more adrenaline than I could’ve imagined. Jake Heggie is one of the most amazing people I have ever had the opportunity to work with in my life. He put me at ease right from the get-go and when I told him my selection he didn’t send me a snobbish glare but said it’s a hard piece and he was excited (genuinely) to hear it. He worked with me on emotion, he skipped around the room with me holding my hand while I spoke the text, and he even played the piano while I sang! Yes, I flubbed the words a few times, and yes, I didn’t sing every note right but I gained insight into the music and the words. I was one of several students asked to sing on a concert that was planned out by Jake himself. I was lucky enough to continue working with Jake on a scene from Dead Man Walking and a duet from his cycle Facing Forward/Looking Back. He helped us stage each part, he worked on the emotions and explained the tricky bits of text, he explained every la and ah, he made jokes with us, laughed with us, treated us as equals and the night of the concert he was just as excited as the rest of us were. The truth is I am having a hard time writing about only the collaboration with such an amazing composer because he was also such an amazing person. What other renowned composer do you know that gave each University student on his concert a personalized pre-show card?
Jake had so many useful blurbs he said and so many gems of wisdom to share that it is hard to write them all down or pick and choose but I think it is apropos to say that he could not stress enough the importance of musicality. I hate to use an all-encompassing word like musicality, but he worked so much with the text, making every word mean something, using line, and speaking the poetry. Know where your piece comes from, know the emotion of the writer, and then share it all with the audience. Jake even gave examples of famous singers who he thought were at one time never going to make it because they were boring on stage. He even mentioned a name that he said at first he didn’t like her voice but knew she’d be a star because she was interesting to watch and listen to. In this competitive field of classical singing every edge counts and maybe the best “edge” a person could have is being the most dynamic, connected, and musical singer possible.
I could keep writing for days on everything I learned from Jake. His insight into where the world of music is going, his belief in the recital format, his up and coming projects, his connections to the students, his outreach to (us) the next generation of singers but what I need to say most of all is how amazing an opportunity it was to work with a living composer. If there is ever an opportunity, whether they are renowned or just starting up, take the chance to see what is going on in the mind of a composer so that you can have that little extra insight, and one of the best experiences of your life.
Oh, and if you ever get that opportunity, be brave, sing the composer’s music for him or her, you’ll be thankful you did.
Laura Begley is a mezzo-soprano originally from Loveland, CO. She graduated from Colorado State University in May 2010 with a B.M. in Vocal Performance where she studied with tenor Dr. Todd Queen. She was named 2009 Singer of the Year at Colorado State University and has placed in the top two for the past three years in the CO/WY NATS Classical Competition including a first place win this past spring in her Senior Division.
Mainstage roles while at CSU included Female Chorus in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Meg Page in Verdi’s Falstaff, Mrs. Jones in Weill’s Street Scene, Cenerentola in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, 2nd Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, The Mother in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Prince Orlofsky in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with CSU Opera Theatre, and Nanette in No, No, Nanette with Opera Fort Collins and the CSU Graduate Conducting Program. She also performed in a scenes program as Zita in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Ensemble performances include Opera Fort Collins, CSU Opera Theatre, and the award-winning CSU Chamber Choir. This past August, Laura also performed Vivaldi’s Gloria with a select choir at the Steamboat Springs Strings Festival.
Laura has also begun her adventures into oratorio singing after singing several solo excerpts from Mendelssohn’s Elijah in ‘08. She has performed as the alto soloist in Bach’s Cantata No. 4, and in Handel’s Dixit Dominus. This past spring, she was a selected performer in a collaboration concert as an alto soloist in Brahms’ Liebeslieder. Laura will also be singing solo selections this Christmas season from Handel’s Messiah.
Laura has been a part of summer training programs for the past 3 years having performed as a soloist in Austria in ’08 with the acclaimed AIMS in Graz program and in Italy in ’09 with the Orvieto Musica- Art of Song Festival. Laura performed many times in a chamber setting in Italy during the Art of Song Festival and was the featured soloist in an Amani String Quartet’s recital performing Respighi’s Il Tramonto. This past July, Laura was selected to sing for 2 weeks at the Amalfi Coast Music Festival. At the Amalfi Coast Music Festival, Laura performed in recitals and scenes as Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Mallika in Delibes’ Lakmé, and Nicklausse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffman. She also performed a mainstage role as Third Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte conducted by Joseph Walsh.
Laura has recently begun her graduate studies at the University of North Texas. She is pursuing her M.M. in Vocal Performance with a related study in Opera Studies and studies with mezzo-soprano Dr. Linda DiFiore. Laura was accepted to UNT with the Charlotte Evan Ayers Voice Scholarship and in August was awarded an additional opera-based scholarship, the Dean Hamilton Memorial Opera Scholarship. Laura just finished learning the role of Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther this November as she was selected as an understudy. Laura competed in UNT’s Concerto Competition in October and made it to the finals round as a Top 4 Finalist. At UNT, Laura was selected to perform in a masterclass with dramatic soprano Laura Aiken as well as have a private coaching with acclaimed composer Jake Heggie who is the current composer-in-residence at UNT. From the coaching, Laura has been selected by Jake Heggie to perform in a concert next February of his own selected works including a scene from Dead Man Walking as Jade. This spring, Laura will also be performing in a scenes program called Opera without Elephants as Adalgisa in a scene from Bellini’s Norma and this summer Laura will be an Opera Studio Artist with Opera Saratoga (formerly Lake George Opera).