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Down A Rocky Road: Jake Heggie on The End of the Affair

By Ed Hawkins

American composer Jake Heggie is the composer of Dead Man Walking (Terrence McNally, libretto) and The End of the Affair, as well as more than 200 songs and major concert works. Dead Man Walking received its premiere in 2000 at San Francisco Opera and has since been seen in New York, Austin, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh among others. Six international productions are scheduled for 2006/07 in Calgary, Baltimore, Dresden (European premiere), Vienna, Malmo, and Sydney. The End of the Affair was premiered in 2004 at Houston Grand Opera and presented in a significantly revised version at Madison Opera in 2005. Future projects include a musical with Terrence McNally, a cantata for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with Gene Scheer, songs for Joyce Castle, and a work for tenor Vinson Cole for Seattle’s Music of Remembrance concert series. He spoke with Ed Hawkins via telephone from his home in San Francisco in September 2005.


Ed Hawkins: Tell me a bit about the history of The End of the Affair.

Jake Heggie: It’s been a very rocky road. Before Dead Man Walking had even premiered, David Gockley [Houston Grand Opera’s then general director] and Patrick Summers [HGO music director] approached me about composing a new chamber opera for their smaller theater. I’d had such a great time collaborating with Terrance McNally on Dead Man that I asked him if he would like to write the libretto for this new piece. Unfortunately, he was too booked to even think about it; but that didn’t stop me from asking him for ideas of what he thought would work—because his dramatic sense is incredibly strong. He suggested The End of the Affair. The [1999] movie with Julianne Moore had just come out so I looked at it, then read the book a couple of times, and then I looked at the [1955] movie with Deborah Kerr, which is definitely the better of the two—it’s truer to the book.

I did all that and I fell in love with it. Then it was a matter of finding the right librettist. At first a playwright friend was going to do but he died quite suddenly. So I had to find another librettist with the clock ticking. The director was going to be Michael Mayer, and he’d just been collaborating with playwright Heather McDonald, so he suggested her. I met with her and we liked each other and her writing seemed very poetic and concise. She was able to convey a lot of character in very few words. Just after she’d signed on, not only did she have a huge family crisis which prevented her from getting to work on it until for longer than I would have liked—and then Michael Mayer had to pull out because he was asked to direct the movie A Home At The End of the World.

Luckily, Leonard Foglia was available. He directed McNally’s Master Class and we had collaborated on the second production of Dead Man Walking that toured around, so we had worked together a lot. He’s a huge Graham Greene fan so he was excited about it.

It was just over a year from the premiere date when the creative team was finally assembled. I basically had to write the whole piece in ten months because of all the late arrivals and everything. The experience aged me about a hundred years.

That’s how the original version of the piece came to be: under really intense pressure, down a really rocky road, and through a lot of tragedy. Even during the writing of the music, while I was composing, my sister died. It was a very difficult time. Interestingly, we were working on a piece that’s about those kind of crises and struggles so I was able to connect very deeply with the characters on that level.


EH: How did you feel about it when it premiered in Houston?

JH: Honestly, I did not feel ready for that premiere, because it had been such a rush. We did have a workshop, and we did have a full rehearsal period, you know, but—creating things—art and music—it all takes time. It takes time. So when Speight stepped forward and said he’d like to do production in 2005, I was extremely grateful because it would give me time to revise. We learned a lot of lessons in Houston. I was really happy with the musical language; it was just the storytelling that needed work. [Director] Leonard Foglia has great dramaturgical instincts and helped to guide the revision.


EH: Where did you make changes?

JH: We basically shifted the entire perspective of the opera from Sarah’s point of view to Maurice’s—it was so much clearer and also much truer to the book. Then we had this great chance to see how the changes worked on stage in Madison. The audience responded in such a different way. They felt so much closer and more connected to it because of this change in perspective.

As satisfying as that was, I learned a few more things from the Madison production and then did some more rewrites—a new score, and a new set of orchestra parts—so what you’re going to see in Seattle is truly the final version of the opera, and I’m really excited about seeing it there myself.

You’ve got such an amazing cast assembled. I knew Mary Mills right after she had been an Adler Fellow and was singing a lot in San Francisco and I loved her yet haven’t heard her sing for eight or nine years so I’m very excited about that reunion. Philip Cutlip is amazing and perfect for the role. Brett Polegato auditioned for the lead in Dead Man Walking and while he didn’t seem right for that role, I was really impressed with him, and I think he’s perfect for Henry Miles. Robert Orth is incomparable and has given more performances of my work than anyone else. I first got to know Raymond Very when he was singing in the world premiere of Harvey Milk and he blew me away so it’s a total luxury to have him as Smythe. And Joyce Castle I just got to know recently even though I’ve known about her for a very long time—I’m actually composing a new song cycle for her right now—so to have her sing Mrs. Bertram is a dream. It’s a really great cast.


EH: Do you see any further revisions after Seattle?

JH: I hope not. I have quite a few other things underway. I was glad to have the chance to revise—revision is an important part of any creative process—but I think a composer has to know when something is done and when to leave it alone. I really feel like this is done now. This is the best way I can tell this story, and it will be very gratifying to see the finished product.


EH: To have a redeeming work of art emerge from such a long series of tribulations seems to echo some of the themes of the original novel. Does it make you wonder whether any of those set-backs were purely accidental?

JH: Well, one can never tell about those things, right? This opera is indeed about struggles and our attempts to understand why bad things happen in our lives and what we make of them. It definitely resonates with our time; in the fact that a city that thought itself impervious has been bombed. There is fallout from that: we feel vulnerable and frightened in our lives, and we do crazy things as we seek something to make us feel more complete and less at a loss.

Sarah is so at a loss and thinks of herself as such an unworthy person that she feels like she wants to be as close to God as possible and thinks that means not hurting anyone else on Earth anymore and just moving on—killing herself, in other words. Which is a very hard journey to understand. And Maurice presents the everyman point of view, with flawed feelings of anger, resentment, and loneliness. He’s just dying to understand, to know what’s happened, yet not believing any of it. They’re very real people. There’s so many levels to the characters in this story, which is the brilliance of Gaham Greene.


EH: What is your response to Speight’s saying that “The End of the Affair demonstrates a greater subtlety of musical vision [than Dead Man Walking.]”?

JH: Well, it’s a chamber opera, so it’s much more intimate on every level, including the musical values. I would think that’s what he was responding to. Even though it’s big drama, it’s extremely personal because we have only six characters carrying the entire story, which is a big responsibility, but it’s similar to the cast size for Cosí fan tutte, which is also six characters plus a small chorus. And that’s very intimate and personal as well. Obviously, we augment the cast with supernumeraries, but they don’t sing.


EH: The biggest departure you made from the novel was adding a scene from Sarah’s childhood to provide her character with some back story. Was that done for Houston or was that part of the revision?

JH: That was for Houston. We invented that because we felt like we needed some background as to why she is the way she is, where she came from, and what she was up against as a child; so that the audience could understand her a little better. We also thought it was important to expand the role of the mother on stage, and that was a way to do that.


EH: Do you think that by experiencing the story as an opera the audience can go further into the heads of these literary characters than they could from watching a film adaptation?

JH: Absolutely. When you have people like that singing—and when you see three dimensional flesh-and-blood people on a stage—struggling with all that, it becomes so much more powerful and real. That’s what we found with Dead Man Walking too. The people up on stage were real people, they weren’t caricatures, and they were of our time, so it resonates even more strongly.


EH: Both Dead Man Walking and The End of the Affair are Heggie operas based on literary works. They both deal with questions of faith in the face of tragedy. It would seem a key distinction between the two works is how elusive the questions to those answers prove to be.

JH: I guess you could say that Dead Man Walking is a more concrete, obvious story. You see the redemption happen and it’s much more grounded and earthy. And actually the original problem with Affair when it premiered in Houston was that it didn’t feel grounded; we fixed that by shifting the perspective to a more grounded character. When the so-called miracles happen, Maurice is still standing there saying, “You’re all out of your mind. This is just a freak coincidence. It’s as much a miracle as what Sarah thought happened with me. She didn’t pray me alive. I never died.” That’s his perspective. Once we got that clarified, it became more tangible to the audience. Still, there’s definitely more mystery in Affair than in Dead Man .


EH: Another key difference is that the central relationship in The End of the Affair is a romantic one. How did the element of erotic love inform your music?

JH: My idea always is to serve the drama as best I can. And this was the language that I came up with that seemed to serve it very well. There’s a lot of harmony that’s built on triads—polytonal chords that are built on different triads. I wanted the triad because it was symbolic of not only the triangle between Henry, Sarah, and Maurice, but also of the Trinity which in a way embodies Sarah’s struggle with religion. So it was a deliberate choice to juxtapose those chords. That’s where the harmony started for me and then it just built from there. I also had this idea that, based on the harmony of those triadic chords juxtaposed against each other, there could be this ascending theme that would run its way through Sarah’s character. That worked out really well.

In terms of the musical language itself, it is much more chromatic. The harmonic language in this one is a little more complex, even though it’s still quite tonal, lyrical, and I hope very tuneful. There are definitely a few things that people could hum after seeing the opera, just as there were in Dead Man .


EH: One key piece of music in Affair is the male quartet.

JH: It’s definitely a musical highlight. I had three baritones and a tenor, and I knew that I wanted there to be a quartet when they all share their feelings about how this woman has changed their lives. Musically, I thought that it would be very powerful to have an all-male quartet like that, and dramatically it made a lot of sense. It worked out well. It’s a beautiful tune they all share, when they’re all thinking about the same thing.


EH: But they’re not singing in unison, right? They each have their own line within the ensemble.

JH: That’s correct. It’s all these overlapping lines of their individual thoughts about what she means to them.


EH: It’s hard to find opera more compelling than in ensemble set pieces. Think of the Act III quartet in Rigoletto or the Don Giovanni sextet. To have several individuals clearly expressing their different points of view simultaneously is something only opera can do.

JH: It’s amazing. I’m a big fan of ensembles, too. That’s why I think Così is my favorite of the Mozart operas. It’s just chock full of the most amazing ensembles. In Dead Man Walking, I did something similar with a sextet that formed the words “You don’t know.” The four parents of the murdered teenagers sing to Sister Helen about their grief, the mother of the convicted killer sings about her grief, and Sister Helen is in the middle singing about her confusion. It’s all these overlapping lines building into a wonderfully successful ensemble.


EH: I’ve occasionally heard people complain about scenes like that because they claim they don’t know “which one to follow.”

JH: If you just listen to the music, it will take you the whole way!


Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications.