Like everyone else in American opera, I had heard glowing reports of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. Because of rehearsal or performance conflicts in Seattle, I had not seen the work. All the more reason then, I felt, to go to Houston in March 2004 for the premiere of The End Of The Affair. Shortly before my trip, we had been forced to make a change in the 2005/06 season schedule, and it occurred to me that if The End Of The Affair was a good piece, it could be presented in place of the opera that we had to drop. I went into the performance having seen the 2000 film based on Graham Greene's novel and the Deborah Kerr version from the 1950s.
The End Of The Affair astonished me first in the appropriateness and romantic quality of its music. It also gripped me with its drama from the beginning. This was a fascinating story, well told. The vocal lines were not easy, but they were superbly composed for the voices involved, and the minor characters all had interesting parts to play, vocally and histrionically.
The two main characters, Sarah and Maurice, held my interest, certainly in Act I and in a large part of Act II. I couldn't help but think that toward the end the opera seemed to lose its focus, and although the music still had character and interest, the power was lost. Despite this, the two hours plus of the opera seemed over in a moment, the audience was enthusiastic, and the demands on the singers, while not excessive, showed a composer with real knowledge of how to make singers effective and how to illustrate the distinctive qualities of each artist's voice.
Walking out of the theater, I thought that this was a piece that would work in Seattle, and I wanted to present it. My thought was cemented after a conversation with Heggie who told me that he didn't think the ending worked and he wanted to do it over. He told me that the piece was already scheduled for Madison Opera in the spring of 2005 and for later performances at Opera Pacific in Orange County, and that he was eager to make some crucial changes. He just needed the money to allow for changes in the score and the orchestra parts.
Working with Madison Opera and Opera Pacific, we found the money, and Heggie began to work. What had allegedly started as a reworking of the piece's finale turned into the kind of dramatic change that transformed Puccini's Madama Butterfly from a fiasco to a huge, popular success. Although Heggie's piece was certainly no fiasco, the composer realized the problems of the first version, completely restructured the piece, and composed a new ending. When I received the score in December of 2004, I was more than delighted—embarrassed a little, too, because I had already recorded my 2005/06 season CD; the story I told did not describe Heggie's new version. Most of the events until the last ten or so minutes remained the same, but the order was different. Such are the variables of new works, and I feel that the changes Heggie made enhanced the opera greatly.
I cast the opera after I saw Houston's production, but nothing has changed in the requirements for the singers. Attending the revised version at the Madison Opera last spring made me sure that we had done the right thing. A good opera from the beginning had become a much stronger work. Its music and drama made great sense, and the urgency of the staging now made for an even more exciting theatrical evening. I love the ending now, one that, though it is more positive than Graham Greene's novel, is not inconsistent with an interpretation of it. I look forward eagerly to our production of what I think is a powerful, new, American opera.