Jake Heggie is one busy composer — a rarity in itself. That he’s a busy — and successful — opera composer is even more noteworthy. His latest project, Great Scott, is being intensively workshopped as part of Opera Fusion: New Works, a collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
Heggie’s librettist is renowned playwright and Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally. Great Scott marks their first major work together since Dead Man Walking, which premiered in 2000 and has since become a classic with more than 40 productions throughout the world.
“We continued to work on smaller projects over the past 12 years and what’s so exciting is that Terrence feels younger now than he did in 2000,” Heggie says, speaking via Skype from his home in San Francisco. (For the record, McNally is 76.)
Heggie and McNally were commissioned to do the work by Dallas Opera in 2012 and the opera premieres next October. Heggie recalls that the only certainty was the opera’s star, acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
“We didn’t know if it would be a big tragedy or a big drama,” Heggie says. “Then all of a sudden the idea of doing something comic with great heart really resonated for both of us because that’s who Joyce is.”
Comedy isn’t a stretch for McNally, whose early plays include slapstick works like The Ritz and Whiskey.
“Terrence started off writing comedies and this is getting back to his roots,” Heggie says. “I grew up loving musical theater, especially comedies, so the ability to go with him is tremendously exciting.”
Great Scott is Arden Scott, a famous opera diva returning to her hometown to help save the struggling local opera company by appearing in a long-lost bel canto opera. Trouble is, the performance is scheduled on the same day as the Super Bowl — and the hometown team is playing in it. Lest you think that could never happen, opera companies often schedule as much as five years in advance.
McNally sees the story as an exploration of America’s obsession with pro football and the often precarious state of the performing arts. After describing it as “a big drama with a heart that has great comedy at the heart of it,” Heggie admitted that this opera is his biggest challenge yet. “The saying is true: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” he says.
“The pacing and the flow have to be so airtight,” he continues. “Rossini’s operas — The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola — are still popular because the music is very funny. It touches, tickles and engages us. I had to find music that would do all that, but in a contemporary sense.”
Rhythm and timing are also dependent on expert staging and music direction, and Great Scott has two of the best in the business. Director Jack O’Brien is a multiple Tony Award winner and conductor Evan Rogister, 34, is one of the busiest young conductors on the scene.
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Opera Fusion: New Works offers a residency for an emerging opera’s creative team to workshop music, libretto and staging. Rehearsal space, administrative support and the opportunity to work with professionals and students for an extended period is a real luxury, Heggie says.
“I’m not done with the opera. The workshop is going to give me a lot of information about where I need to go,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity to find out if the pacing that’s so essential is built into the score. We’ll learn an enormous amount.”
“Not many comic operas work,” he adds. “But if there’s great spirit and heart, and the situation rings as true, we can sit back and laugh.”
A free public reading is set for Nov. 25 followed by a Q&A with the creative team. It’s Heggie’s first time back in eight years. He attended Cincinnati Opera’s memorable production of Dead Man Walking in 2002, and was in residence at CCM in 2006.
“I’ve always had a special connection with CCM and Cincinnati Opera, and I’m really looking forward to seeing and working with everyone,” he says. That includes Robin Guarino, chair of CCM’s Opera Department, who directed Heggie’s first opera — a 10-minute work — in early 2000.
Heggie and the rest of the team are meeting with students and Opera board members when not revising their work.
“One thing is for sure,” Heggie says, “I’m going to be one tired person for Thanksgiving.”
GREAT SCOTT’s public reading will take place 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Memorial Hall. Free. Reservations required: 513-241-2742.