July 10, 2017

Jake Heggie’s 2017 Convocation Address

Composer Jake Heggie delivered the following address at the Bienen School of Music’s 2017 convocation ceremony Saturday, June 17, in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Watch the video below or on the Davee Online Media Library.

Good morning, Class of 2017, and congratulations! What an honor to speak to you today. Thank you for showing up.

You know, that’s not to be taken lightly. Woody Allen said that showing up is 80 percent of life. I disagree. Showing up is everything.

But what exactly does it mean to show up in the year 2017? Tapping your phone, tablet, or computer? No. We all know what it really is to show up.

You wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t made the choice to show up and do the demanding work of music. You definitely wouldn’t be here if others hadn’t shown up for you along the way. So, first: here’s to your families, friends, mentors, teachers and guides, wherever they might be.

There’s only one way music happens: you participate. And when you do, not only are you able to experience that miraculous connection as part of a community—you can initiate it. You can be the source of the vibration that wakes everybody up. As my friend Sister Helen Prejean—author of the book Dead Man Walking—says: “Music can take you into parts of your heart you might not even know you have.”

And don’t we need that desperately today? The community music provides: where we set aside our differences and experience something deeply human and transformative together. Something to open up a dialogue when nothing else seems to.

I met a choral director recently who said, “If I could just get Congress to sing together five minutes every morning, can you imagine? Five minutes! Let me at ’em!”

The arts get sidelined and politicized as elite and superfluous all the time. We know better, though, don’t we? Isn’t there music at nearly every stage and step in our lives? Mothers sing to babies; there is music at birthdays, sporting events, reunions, anniversaries, memorials, graduations—how on earth is that superfluous? Music is essential—and it is essentially optimistic. It is about the future: the very best of what we can achieve together when we open our hearts and minds to strive for something great and seemingly unreachable. It is about the deepest stirrings in our hearts and souls. And people are absolutely starved for it.

No doubt, you have heard forecasts of doom and gloom for the arts lately: audiences aging and disappearing, half-empty concert halls and opera houses, funds drying up, companies closing. Yes, this is incredibly alarming and serious; not to be taken lightly. But this is also not new.

It’s why throughout human history we’ve always sought innovation, fresh voices and perspectives, new stories and venues: to astonish, attract, and amaze an audience anew. So let me ask you: are we faced with an insurmountable crisis? Or is this a golden opportunity for something vigorous, fresh, and bold?

I vote for the latter.

The quest and demand for new talent and vision is the only reason anyone develops a career in the arts. It’s the reason I was lucky enough to be given a doorway to the career I have today: an American composer who writes opera and art song for a living. In the United States. In 2017! Can you imagine such a thing? I certainly didn’t.

I grew up in Ohio and California, exposed to a broad range of music—we had it in school every day. At home on the record player there was the big band music my father adored. Upstairs, my sisters’ rock-n-roll blared raucously and joyfully. In my own room, I listened to classical music and pop singers like Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon. But my first love was movie musicals. Julie Andrews was Goddess Number One. When I was old enough, I’d ride my bike to the cinema and stay all day. Music was everywhere and always fun.

Then, when I was 10 years old, my father took his life. Unknown to me and my siblings, he suffered from crushing depression. All we knew as children was that he left us—he wouldn’t show up ever again. A bomb went off in our family. My amazing mother did the best she could, but there was emotional wreckage everywhere. She was 39 years old with four young children. She went back to work as a nurse and returned to school to get a better job, so we were left on our own a lot. My lifeline was music: it gave me a voice, purpose, hope for something beautiful and unifying—it was empowering and I immersed myself in it.

Shortly after my father’s suicide, I started composing: mostly songs for Barbra Streisand that she would never see. I also practiced the piano six hours a day. I might not remember every school teacher I’ve ever had—but every music teacher is etched forever in my head and heart.

After high school, I took off to Europe and attended the American College in Paris to walk in the footsteps of my heroes: Chopin, Debussy, Ravel. I traveled far and wide hoping to find myself.

After two years in Paris, I went to UCLA to study with Johana Harris, widow of composer Roy Harris. She opened up the world of music to me as nobody had before: composers became real, music started to live in a remarkable way. It told me the stories of the composers and their times. Johana had been a child prodigy. After studying with Ernest Hutcheson at Juilliard when she was 10 years old, she became the youngest faculty member in that school’s history at age 16. Before that, in Ottawa, she studied with a student of Liszt. Liszt, of course, knew Chopin and his circle. Liszt had played for Beethoven, who had played for Mozart. You guys, I was a couple of handshakes away from Mozart! I felt a staggering legacy and connection and realized that 200 years is not all that long.

It was magical teaching. The world of art stopped being portraits and marble busts of beloved composers and performers. It became human, visceral, messy, magical, and somehow even more miraculous than before.

I was learning directly from the keepers of a universal, timeless, mysterious flame. The flame that had been guiding me all along. That fire ignited possibility and imagination like nothing I had ever felt. It also came with a great sense of responsibility to preserve and share it.

I got lost in the library, listening and studying. On campus, the Béjart Ballets came through, Paul Taylor Dance, Hubbard Street, great orchestras, chamber musicians, and singers. I heard Sweeney Todd, then Peter Grimes, Tosca, Figaro, Così, and Wozzeck. Opera jumped to life for me, as did great singers. I had always thought it was all a little silly, but I had my “aha!” moment, and it suddenly made sense why people were so excited about this massive art form.

I took a one-year break after graduating, but only a year because I missed school and knew I had a lot more work to do.

I felt energized when I was surrounded by music and study. I went back to UCLA for a master’s in composition.

University life gave me immense opportunities for study and experience: I could try, fail, try again, work with amazing teachers and student colleagues. I also wound up as the page turner for concerts by Leontyne Price, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Kiri Te Kanawa. I was the pianist for the school choirs and faculty soloists, learning the art song repertoire and composing songs to Dickinson, Housman and others. It was like a dream.

And then, over a very short period of time, I developed a focal dystonia in my right hand as it started to curl up and cramp uncontrollably when I’d play the piano. I was 28 years old and couldn’t make music any more. My identity thrown into chaos, I felt full of doubts and lost the courage to compose. I fell into a dark space. I didn’t like myself. I was also struggling with a deeper identity, coming to grips with being gay during the terrifying AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Pretending not to be gay was exhausting. Being gay, in that time, to me meant secrecy, fear, and shame. I felt out of step. An immense failure. With only my thesis left to submit, I dropped out of grad school.

The precious, innate fire that had always felt like an indelible gift—part of my DNA—had become a painful reminder of something lost. I decided to try to ignore it, douse it, or redirect it somehow. A new quest for identity began.

I found a job running a small, private performing arts series: met managers and agents, and learned about producing concerts. That job was followed by a position at the UCLA Center for the Arts, where I learned more about the practical side of music.

But still, I felt haunted by the ghosts of possibility lost to me because of my hand injury. I had been entrusted with that flame of possibility and legacy, and I felt I had disgraced it. A former composition teacher kept hounding me to finish my master’s degree. I pushed away and tried to put the fire away, too. But you all know that this remarkable flame just keeps burning deep inside. It is your truth—and will not be ignored forever.

I decided to move to San Francisco to escape the ghosts. Perhaps I would find myself up there. At this very low point, I confessed to a close friend that I had to leave because I was such a failure. Totally surprised, she looked me in the eye and said: “Jake, you’re one of the most successful people I know.” It was a lifeline I took with me. What is it to be successful? in life? in music? Why couldn’t I see it in myself?

A few months later, I got a job at the San Francisco Opera as the company’s PR–marketing writer. I worked with the great impresario Lotfi Mansouri, general director of the company. There, I met and heard some of the great singers of our time: Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel. I engaged with great artists and administrators, as well as the remarkable people who support the arts in San Francisco. It was the best apprenticeship imaginable for an aspiring opera composer—even though I didn’t know I was an opera composer at that point. Rehearsals were revelations. I got to know every person and every corner of that opera house. My responsibility was to write about the opera and spread the word to the community. And what a vast, remarkable community it was. Seekers of the flame and keepers of the flame united in the magical space of the opera house. An enormous family.

I began to play the piano again, thanks to Dorothy Taubman technique. Flicka von Stade befriended me. And though she didn’t know me as a composer or pianist, I took a chance and set some folk songs for her. After a moment of wide-eyed terror (oh goody, the PR guy writes songs!), we read through them: me at the piano, her leaning over my shoulder. That alone was a dream come true. But then she said, “Jakey, these are really beautiful. Would you like to give a concert together sometime?”

Are you kidding me?

She told other singers and soon artists were coming to the PR office to ask if I had a song for them, or if I’d write one. So, by day I wrote press releases, and in my spare time—whenever I could find it—I wrote art songs. That seemed like a pretty good way to make a life.

Then, out of the blue, the general director said, “So you’re writing all these songs for great singers who are performing them all over the world. Ever thought about writing an opera?” “Um, no!”

I replied. And he said, “Well, I think you’re a theater composer. I want to send you to New York to meet Terrence McNally. We have a spot on the 2000–01 season and I’d like you two to think of an opera, maybe a comedy: something fun and celebratory for the new millennium.” At first, I thought: “Who are you talking to?”

But, I felt enormous possibility, energy, and life. Lotfi sent me to New York to meet Terrence, and a couple of years later, I was the composer in residence at the San Francisco Opera to create my first work. Lotfi’s “comedy” turned out to be Dead Man Walking, a serious, dark American drama. (Can you imagine that conversation?)

Flicka told me I needed to record a CD of my songs. Renée and my other singer pals volunteered to participate. With my famous cast on board, RCA made The Faces of Love a major release in 1999 and G. Schirmer published the songs. That same year, I met Curt Branom, who became my husband and with whom I’ve shared this journey the past 18 years, raising a son together.

The world premiere of Dead Man Walking was on October 7, 2000. Let’s just say it went well. (And guess what? Goddess Number One, Julie Andrews, was there!) Next year, the opera will receive its 60th international production. That first opera led to other opportunities and, by now, eight full-length operas, several one-acts, 300 art songs, choral works, and more. I know how lucky I am, and I work very hard. That’s what one does in music. You work hard. All the time.

A couple years after the premiere of Dead Man, a former composition professor at UCLA reached out again and said, “Jake, when are you going to finish your master’s degree? All you have to do is submit a composition and the paperwork.” So, I returned to UCLA to be a student for one more day, and I’m pleased to tell you I finished my degree 17 years after I started it.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because the path to a career is almost never what you think it will be. My hand injury seemed to me the worst thing that could have happened—and it turned out to be an immense gift. But none of what happened for me would have occurred without curiosity, passion for hard work, an adventurous spirit, a desperate need to be close to music, willingness to participate, adapt, and move—and a lot of people who did the same, then showed up to offer adventure and possibility. People who believed and said: “Hey, how about you?”

So how about you here today? In the world you face, some see something precariously at risk of disappearing. Maybe it could. But I feel something shifting. I feel your energy and ideas—something amazing ready to blossom.

I hope you sense the enormous possibility of this moment: the chance to create something astonishing that will reach, gather, and connect people through music in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

Removing the arts from public schools two generations ago was a huge mistake. We are paying a hefty price for it as a society. It has affected every level of our national dialogue. But you—you can get it back there—to open up a world of possibility again for young people and take us back to healing, dialogue, conversation, connection. Through your ideas, your invention, your music.

So, class of 2017, here’s your most urgent charge: get the arts back into public schools now. Do whatever it takes. Take the next generation by the hand, smother them with your love for music. Show them what it really means to show up for one another.

Honor your sacred flame, your spiritual heroes, the people who have shown up for you. Your presence is one of the great gifts you have to offer the world. Your passion is meaningless unless you share it. Show up for all the young people waiting to find a voice, to sing and join the chorus. The further you reach out, the broader your horizon, the richer your life. This road can be very lonely. But I promise you that in music—even when you feel lonely—you are never alone. Your spirit guides are with you. We are all with you and will never stop showing up for you. All you ever have to do is listen.

In my opera Great Scott, a great opera singer wonders if all the compromises and sacrifices she’s made have been worth it. At one point, she sits with her most important mentor and teacher—the one who awakened the flame in her—and says, “Oh, Mrs. F, I wanted to be famous and wonderful. But famous and wonderful aren’t enough. I want to matter. If I don’t, I’m a dancing dog—a circus freak. I want what I do, what we all do to reach someone. Even one person. I want to transform one life the way you transformed mine.”

It’s your turn, my friends. Be bold. We need passionate young people to get us reconnected through music to what matters most about being human—and I choose you. I choose you to ignite and share the flame of possibility and the fire of inspiration. I choose you to wake up the world and blaze new pathways. I choose you, class of 2017. You’ve done the good work—now get out there and do the great work. Congratulations and thank you.