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Jake Heggie’s “If I Were You” at Merola Opera Program

Jake Heggie’s “If I Were You” at Merola Opera Program

Carol Benet

In its 62 year history,  the Merola Opera Program has produced only one commissioned work and that is this year when they asked Jake Heggie to write an opera for them.

Heggie, the star opera composer, who lives in the Bay Area, wrote “If I Were You” inspired by the French-American author Julian Green’s novel. The story has elements of the Faust tale as well as a bit of “Frankenstein” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, all stories where the main character searches for love and acceptance in the world of human beings.  

Opening with a sc-fi touch of lightening bolts and electric shocks well created by Lucaa Krech (lights), Peter Torpey (projections) and Teddy Hulsker (sound). The jolts appear every time Fabian (Nicholas Huff) wants to inhabit the body of another person in his search for a new soul. The ever-morphing Mephisto character Brittomara (Brennan Blankenship) has made a bargain with him that by selling his soul and loosing his identity, his goal will be accomplished.  

But what is he longing for and what does he get in the end?  This is the timeless question in the Faust story.  Scholars have debated this for centuries. Does Faust want knowledge, immortality, fame, power?  But for the young Merola singers, Heggie encapsulates the longing of youth for more, for different, for something almost indescribable so they can escape their own existential being-ness at this time of their often uncertain youth.  

The 62 year old Merola program is one of the finest opera training venues for young singers in the world.  From over 800 singers directors and coaches auditioning yearly, they choose only 23 for the 12 week program.  Famous singers Anna Netrebko, Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt and many others are Merola graduates.

Heggie is a success story.  Like John Adams, he is from the Bay Area and produces one exciting work after another. Both “Moby Dick” and “Dead Man Walking” will appear at the Metropolitan Opera after playing all over the world as do his more than 250 art songs and other operas.  His operas are preformed on five continents. Here wse saw his “It’s a Wonderful Life” last November 2018 at SF Opera.

The opera opens when the talented singer Fabian is in an ambulance after a car crash.  His EMT is Brittomara, the devil in one of her many disguises. Later on in a car repair shop he meets Diana (Anne-Marie MacIntosh), the girl with whom he was infatuated in college, In the wrecked car, he finds his red journal containing the beginning of the story he is working on.  He is an aspiring writer.  

Then Fabian goes to his boring job and encounters his abusive boss Putman (Rafael Porto).  The boss’s is the first body he inhabits after the devil instructs him to recite the names of three ancient Hindu gods whenever he wants to change personnae. By inhabiting Putnam and  other bodies later on, he will be able to live for ever, one part of the wager with the devil. 

Next we are at a bar with the bartender, the devil in disguise.  The, young people, all from the chorus of the Merola, are having a raucous time.The Two Women (Chelsea Lehnea and Amber R. Monroe) play the drunken scene well.  All of them are very believable youthful, fun-loving characters, especially in their appropriate casual dress (costumes by Alina Bokovikov).   Outside of the bar Fabian moves next into the body of the brutish Paul (Timothy Murray) who has seduced Diana. A killing brawl (fight director Jonathan Rider) follows where Diana thinks she has shot Rachel in the confusion. Diana and her friend Selena (Elisa Sunshine) have fabulous voices.   Rachel (Edith Grossman) David (Brandon Scott Russell) and Jonathan (Edward Laurenson) also all deserve special mention for their fine voices.    

A distraught Diana goes to Fabian’s messy man-cave filled with numerous books and piles of papers and manuscripts.  Liliana Duqaue Piñeiro’s sets are ingenious on the small stage of the gorgeous Herbst Theatre, which has been restored to its original artistic splendor. 

The second act has more of Fabian’s transformations and the story ends with a very sad solution to Fabian’s problem.  Only a few of  the Faustian tales end up happily and hopeful.  Heggie’s music is beautiful.  It is performed by a professional orchestra assembled by the wonderful conductor  Nicole Paiement.  She also has her own successful Parallèle Opera Company.

 Heggie is able to convey the story with intelligent and unusual tonal expertise.  He and his librettist Gene Scheer have worked together on several successful operas.  In “If I Were You”, the words are simple, easily understood and often poetic.  Keturah Stickann’s direction of the two casts, each performing two of the four performances, is excellent. 

The Merola ends its 2019 program with the ever popular evening of ensembles and arias in the “Merola Grand Finale” on August 17, 7:30, at the War Memorial Opera House,.

“If I Were You” plays at the Herbst Theate, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, August 1 through 6, 2019. Tickets from SF Opera Box Office 415 864 3330.  or http://merola.org.  

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