Page 98 - Classical Singer magazine 2019 Fall University Issue
P. 98

A Composer Improvises
Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, co-creators of the opera If I Were You.
and not worrying about counting and wrecking their voice.
“If you really want an e ective theatre piece, you have to work with the singer. It’s not dumbing your piece down; it’s smartening it up. And that doesn’t mean you can’t write music that’s complex. But you have to be smart about it and sympathetic to
the needs of that singer. I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than what singers do. It takes such courage.”
Along with the opera house, there is another rich musical world that
has been close to Heggie’s heart for many years, and that is the community around San Francisco’s long-running musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon. Heggie’s husband, singing actor Curt Branom, is a cast member. Since it began in 1974, the show has become an ongoing theatrical landmark, but it will close at the end of this year after more than 17,000 performances.
“It feeds the other side of me,” he says. “The musical theatre side. The whole team and crew—it is devastating to think of it not being in the city. I  rst saw it when I was 17. My mom took me to see it before I went to college.”
98 Classical Singer | September/October 2019
photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
San Francisco is an important ingredient in Heggie’s recipe for a happy life. He and Branom have a 23-year-old son. “He developed a lot of skills growing up here,” he says, “talking to our communities in the theater and at the opera. I think that will serve him well.”
Heggie’s mother lives here now, and with his husband’s grueling schedule at “Babylon,” she would often cook for them on a Sunday evening. The next chapter will be di erent for the couple. Like Heggie, Branom is a teacher as well as an artist. “Curt is a great coach,” he says. “He goes with me to SongFest and works on their arias as monologues.”
Branom also teaches through the Paci c Singers & Actors Workshop,
a program that brings high-quality instruction from professional performing artists to middle and high school students in San Francisco. “Doing seven to nine shows a week for 20 years, with vacations but not really any vocal rest,” Heggie says, “he has a lot of information he can pass along.”
While many composers are more specialized, Heggie’s output
comprises operas, orchestral works, chamber music and, of course, songs. It’s a way of keeping himself challenged.
“The thing I don’t want is to wind up repeating myself,” he says. “I want
to be surprised in the moment. I want the characters to take me by surprise. I want the requirements of the next piece to terrify me a little bit. Like, ‘I think I can do that, but I’m not sure how the hell I’m going to do that!’ So that it isn’t premeditated and preordained.
“The piece has to make sense for me personally for the skillset that I bring, but I also want it to surprise me and take me in new directions—which is why it goes from Dead Man Walking to Three Decembers to Moby-Dick to
It’s a Wonderful Life to a holocaust opera to Great Scott and now to If
I W ere You. Di erent projects with di erent characters and dilemmas and di erent challenges for me as a theatre composer.”
This sense of improv is something Heggie  nds valuable in Branom’s coaching of singers. He also wishes
it were more present in singers’ education.
“Singing and technique is about building something you can count on,”
Heggie and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in the Skywalker Sound recording studio.

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