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IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – Composer Jake Heggie on the Opera vs. Movie – Fall 2018


My name is Jake Heggie and I’m a composer and pianist. What is different about the film and the stage piece? A lot.
The ascent that — the things that is the same is the central journey of George Bailey. A man who has been born
and raised in the small town of Bedford Falls, New York. And the people that he has interacted with over his life. And
then a crisis point that happens for him where he feels like has, I’ve worked so hard to make a difference in this
community. To help people out. To build this whole thing and fought against the forces that were trying to tear, tear him
down and stop him. That he wonders if it’s all worth and he comes to this big crisis point. That is the central story
line that stays the same. How we tell it is very different. Because the film, of course, does things that you can only do
with the movie. It does fast cuts and it does scene changes really quickly. And it does close ups you know and then it pulls
back and it does a big panorama. You can’t do that in an opera, so the way we tell it is we had to find a way for the
angel to visit George and get to know his life without doing a bunch of flashbacks or different camera shots and
things. So, Gene came up with the idea of a series of doorways. In a sense, that in a place that’s like an attic. Where
heaven and earth meet and all these different doors are different avenues to different days and events in George
Bailey’s life. And by going through this door or that door, we learn another detail of George’s life. When he was a child.
When he met Mary Bailey. When they were at the high school dance and the pool opened up and they all fell in. All these
different wonderful events in his life that led him to be the person that he is. So the way we do it and the story is
we start in the heavens with our angel is Clara, rather than Clarence, a soprano, because it’s an opera. And Clara is hearing things that the other angels can’t hear
for some reason. She’s hearing all these prayers for this man named George Bailey. And she asks the angels about it and the
voice of the heavens, which is voiced by Patti LuPone. Because of course, you think of the voice of the heavens, who you gonna think of?
Patti LuPone. She’s a great friend and she did it as a favor. The voice of the heavens assigns Clara to save this man’s
life. We see him on the bridge thinking of taking his life. It’s Christmas Eve. They say we got a help her, we got to
help him. We got to save him. We’re gonna send Clara to save George. And so time stops and we go to
George’s childhood and one by one through events we watch Clara. Clara is our guide through George’s life. Day — step by
step in these big events in his life. Until we get to the present day when he’s back at the bridge towards the end of
the second act. So it’s, we had to do things very differently from the movie that’s, I went on a little too
long, I hope you can edit that out. We had to do things differently for the stage. But
essentially, the basic story is there. It’s just telling it so that it feels like it’s happening in real time. From
childhood to the events of the bridge without a bunch of flashbacks going back and forth between because it’s very
difficult to keep up with. And introducing the characters that influence his life and watching the family of George Bailey grow
and expand as he influences his community and then comes to this big crisis. The world without George Bailey when
he’s given this amazing gift by this angel. Where he gets to see what the world would be like without him. This
was a big discussion that Gene and I had when we were working on the libretto and shaping the piece. Because we
knew that suddenly the world without George Bailey had to feel different, had to look different, and had to sound
different. And I said to Gene, well we’ve had wall to wall music by then and it’s been very alive and human voices and
unamplified and no electronics. What if, for the world without George Bailey, suddenly we’re in a
world where there is no music were all there is, is this haunted sort of vacant void sound? And everyone speaks in
dialogue rather than singing. And we really loved that idea. And because, you can actually say things faster than you can
sing them, it allowed us to actually get a lot more information in that little section. Then if we had — if I had
said it, it would have gone on again, too long, that we because we get the point very quickly. So he gets to see what the world
would be like, when he gets to interact with Mr. Gower. He gets to see his brother’s grave. He sees his mother who doesn’t recognize him.
He goes back to the house where he had — he and Mary had a family, which is vacant. And the angel, Clara is his guide
through all of this, until finally very shortly, I think it’s like six or seven minutes long that entire scene, he’s on his
knees saying, I just wanna live again. But it — I think it works really really well. It’s very surprising and it was a very, I
think, bold and dramatic choice. And it allows the audience suddenly to go into a different level, than having the
comforts of music constantly guiding you. You suddenly are in a very different world with him. I think another hard thing in the telling
of it on the stage, is that there’s so much exposition, there’s so much to get to know before you
get to know why this moment and George Bailey’s life is so crucial. That getting through all of that exposition as
swiftly as possible and cutting to the chase, sort of was very difficult, and the difference with opera, film,
etcetera is of course in an opera, the final character to arrive is the audience and you can think you know what you
have, but until the audience shows up it’s all abstract it’s all in our heads. We can think it’s a wonderful and great in
clear and perfect and then the audience shows up and sometimes they’re sitting there, huh. Which is not a good thing. And sometimes they’re
very excited and with you and it’s measuring and reading that to see where it needs to move along. What could be cut?
What could be made better? And so we learned from the audience in Houston. We learn from the audience and I.U. and
were arriving fully formed here in San Francisco.

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