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Heggie Highlights LLO Festival

by Roy C. Dicks

June 30, 2007, Chapel Hill, NC: The final weekend of Long Leaf Opera's first annual summer festival boasted a high profile event with an appearance by composer Jake Heggie on a Saturday afternoon in Memorial Hall. Best known for his hit opera "Dead Man Walking," based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean (the basis of the Academy award-winning film), Heggie also has composed over 200 songs, many of which are included on recitals and recordings of singers such as Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming and Susan Graham.

Heggie's program had two different and equally fascinating parts. The first was the Southern premiere of his At the Statue of Venus, a 22-minute mini-opera for soprano and piano, commissioned for the opening of the new Denver opera house in September 2005. A new form for Heggie, "Venus" is a delightful amalgam of opera and song, a scena not unlike those of Mozart and Haydn but with a distinctly contemporary flair.

Employing a text by Tony award-winning playwright Terrence McNally (Heggie's librettist for "Dead Man Walking"), the work is set in an art museum where middle-aged Rose is waiting for a blind date at the appointed statute. Nervous, Rose finds fault with her attire ("why did I wear slacks?"), tries to determine which man is her date ("oh please don't let it be him!") and worries she has been stood up ("maybe he saw me and left"). She convinces herself she wouldn't have liked him anyway then consoles herself reflecting on her childhood, when she felt truly loved by her parents. Finally she dreams of finding the right man someday who will love her for who she is.

Heggie's music, expertly played by the composer himself, uses frenzied dissonance to indicate Rose's anxiety, Broadway-style rhythms for comedic interludes and a warm lyricism for Rose's childhood memories, subtly reflecting all the varying changes of mood and attitude. Soprano Elizabeth Grayson, known for her performances with LLO and Opera Company of North Carolina, gave Rose great dimension with her clear, lovely voice and heartfelt emotions. Her quiet meditation on parental love was most moving, and the last moment of the piece, when in a wonderful coup de theâtre, Heggie speaks the word "Rose" in the guise of Rose's date who has finally arrived — it was unexpected by both audience and character and was a wonderfully emotional moment. Grayson's reaction brought many audience members visibly to tears.

Grayson's light lyric voice made intimate moments vivid, and she could float wonderful high notes. Sometimes the piano overpowered her but for the most part she displayed a fine range of dynamics and colors. She had exemplary diction, made unclear only when she sang upstage to the statues (there were three for this production, courtesy of local sculptor William Moore). Grayson made humorous use of the headless statues, sometimes going behind the shorter ones, fitting her head to them. The uncredited staging had some generic moments, and Grayson's gestures were sometimes more presentational than character-driven, but her winning vulnerability made point after point in the score.

The second half was a master class by Heggie with four participants, three of them semi-finalists in LLO's vocal competition last year. Heggie explained he is not a voice technician or vocal coach, so his advice would be in matters of interpretation, especially emotional truth. As all four singers performed works by Heggie, he was quite helpful in that regard.

Heggie focused on getting the singers to show more range of response to the texts, including wider dynamic levels and more physical indications. Heggie encouraged the singers to get at the meaning of the words and the context of the scene. His relaxed, humorous charm put the performers at ease as he asked them to take off their shoes (too confining for movement) and led them around the stage by the hand to make them break out of any restrictions.

Crystal Stroupe sang the "Queen of Hell" aria from Heggie’s one-act opera To Hell and Back, which concerns the plight of an abused wife, demonstrating a fine feel for character and an impressive dynamic range. Shaina Vatz sang "Animal Passion" from the song cycle "Natural Selection," a sexual declaration delivered with quiet intensity, made stronger with Heggie's amusing physical manipulations of her body.

Andrea Edith Moore, substituting at the last minute for an indisposed Leandra Ramm, used sheet music for her rendition of "Phoenix" from the song cycle "Rise and Fall." Despite that limitation, she used her ample power to voice the song's joy over an impending marriage (one of Heggie's most effective songs, with soaring lines and bell-like chords). Daniel Stein made a strong case for the Emily Dickinson text in "At last - to be identified," a brief paean to the unknown afterlife. Stein's easy, well-supported high notes and energetic enthusiasm (even more intense after Heggie's coaching) made a fitting end to the afternoon. Heggie seemed genuinely impressed with the caliber of these voices, praising them individually for each one's strengths.

With any luck, Heggie will be a frequent visitor to the festival. Organizers are already contemplating a production of "Dead Man Walking," and it would be smart to snag him for further evenings of songs and scenas, as well as master classes.      

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