Jake Heggie ’84, M.A. ’05

6 min read
Jake Heggie ’84 and M.A. ’05, Music (Composition) ?: Karen_Almond

B.A. Composition ’84, M.A. Composition ’05

Jake Heggie is an American composer of opera, vocal, orchestral and chamber music. He is best known for his operas and art songs, as well as for his collaborations with internationally-renowned performers and writers. Hailed by the Associated Press as “one of the pre-eminent contemporary opera composers,” Heggie is most known for his contributions to the American operatic repertoire, which includes “Dead Man Walking,” “Moby-Dick,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Three Decembers,” among others. His work has been produced on five continents at some of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. In September 2021, “Dead Man Walking” received its 71st production at the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet in Oslo, Norway, making it the most widely performed American opera of the 21st century. Heggie’s collaborators have included writers Terrence McNally, Gene Scheer and Margaret Atwood, as well as beloved singers like Joyce DiDonato, Jamie Barton, Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade. He has also composed nearly 300 art songs, as well as chamber, choral and orchestral works. Heggie is a frequent guest artist at universities, conservatories and festivals throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In an interview with the celebrated composer, Heggie shared insights about his experiences at UCLA, the silver linings of challenges throughout his career and advice for young musical artists.

  • You’ve had such a successful career as a composer, in what ways do you think UCLA prepared you?

Connection, hard work, participation and possibility! The teachers I had were extraordinary – from piano studies with Johana Harris to composition with Paul DesMarais, Roger Bourland and Paul Reale, and film scoring with David Raksin. All of them gave me great practical training in fundamentals, of course, but never in a dry or didactic way – always with great imagination, curiosity and possibility. Everything was about challenging and awakening my creative psyche to new possibilities. And all of this was in connection to making music live and in the moment. There was great emphasis on collaborating with other students – performers and composers – to challenge and support each other. Some of my dearest friends and colleagues are from my years at UCLA in the 1980s.

The number of performances available to me at UCLA was mind-blowing. In the music building, there were student concerts, operas, masterclasses, musicals and more. But there was also the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, which brought in the best performers in the world: dance companies, ballet companies, orchestras, chamber groups, and astounding soloists. I was even lucky enough to be asked to turn pages for recitals by Leontyne Price, Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatyana Troyanos, Kathleen Battle, Jean-Philippe Collard, Isaac Stern, and Itzhak Perlman, among others! Those were formative events for a young composer – meeting and being onstage with great artists like that. I watched and met conductors like Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. And I will never forget watching Shakespeare’s Richard III performed by Sir Ian McKellan at Royce Hall, seated behind Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman! I still pinch myself that I was there.

PLUS, there was the great gift of the Music Library. One of the greatest anywhere! Every day was rich with exploration: getting lost in stacks of scores – making discoveries – listening endlessly. All of this was available to me, and all I had to do was show up.

  • Your work spans various mediums from opera, to choral, to art songs. What qualities or skills should a young artist cultivate in order to be this well-versed?

You must be incredibly curious and passionate about experiencing a wide range of literature, poetry, theater, art, opera, dance, film, jazz – all of it. And not just what is current, but the full history so you know whose shoulders you’re standing on. Music has to be immersive. You must crave collaboration and seek out the people who will challenge and inspire you: performers, writers, directors, and so on. You also must find yourself – your authentic voice – by trying many different things and seeing what resonates. Travel, meet people, try different foods, explore other perspectives. As a composer, you must be prolific. Write A LOT and learn what you can from each piece. Don’t put the pressure on yourself to make a piece the best thing you’ll ever compose. Just make it the best you can do in the moment. Learn from it and then move on to the next. Make sure you work on projects that are deeply meaningful to you – projects that have profound resonance. Experience a lot. Write a lot. Some things will work – some will not.

  • You have often collaborated with the same people such as Gene Scheer or Terrence McNally. Can you talk about the importance of relationships when it comes to music?

Relationships are EVERYTHING, no matter what field you pursue! It’s all about the people you work with – so make sure you’re collaborating with gifted people you admire and enjoy, who will challenge you to make your work better, the same way you will challenge them. Once you find your creative soul mates, you hold onto them and keep going back because you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel. There are so many unknowns in creating a new piece, and the certainty of colleagues you trust and love brings clarity, focus, and confidence. It’s why I did so much work with the late Terrence McNally and why I work again and again with Gene Scheer. It’s also why I go again and again to certain performers: Joyce DiDonato, Jamie Barton, Sasha Cooke, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade. I know them SO well. They are my friends. I know how they sing, how they move, how they vibrate. Plus, we always have a great time together on a new adventure. And wouldn’t you always rather be with fun people on a big adventure?

  • Your career took a turn in the 1990s when you were no longer able to play piano. What did you learn about yourself as an artist during this time away?  

In my late 20s, while pursuing my master’s degree, I developed focal dystonia in my right hand. The fingers would curl up and cramp when I played. I didn’t know what was happening and was very frightened. By chance, a neurologist named Frank Wilson was speaking at the UCLA Music Department one day. I met him and he told me what was going on. He offered to help me. But, I would have to stop playing for a while, retrain myself, build a new technique and find a way to make a living. At the time, it felt like the biggest loss and tragedy imaginable. All my life I’d defined myself by performing and playing the piano. When that went away, I also lost the courage to compose. So, who was I? The journey turned out to be kind of a miracle – and would never have happened had I not lost my ability to play the piano in that moment.

Thanks to my UCLA training, I could write about music very well and had good administrative instincts. I got a job running a small, private performing arts series, and then became the PR writer at the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. After a couple of years, I moved to San Francisco and got a job as the PR writer for the great San Francisco Opera. Suddenly, I was immersed in the production and creation of opera. My job was to know what was going on in every corner of that great opera house and write about it. I met extraordinary singers and conductors, administrators, donors, volunteers, designers, etc. And as my ability to play the piano returned, the courage, passion and hunger to compose returned. I wrote a few songs for Frederica von Stade and she loved them. Then I was writing songs for Renée Fleming, Sylvia McNair, Bryn Terfel, Jennifer Larmore and others. They featured my songs in recitals all over the world. I was a winner in the G. Schirmer Art Song Competition of 1995. And then, out of the blue, the general director of the San Francisco Opera asked me to write an opera for the main stage season of 2000/2001. He made me the company’s first composer in residence in 1997. I worked with Terrence McNally and we created an opera called Dead Man Walking. Let’s just say, it went well! I had found home. A miracle, right?

Would any of that have happened if I hadn’t injured my hand? If I hadn’t had the vast experience and foundation UCLA had given me? I don’t think so.

  • Do you have a special memory from your days on campus that you would like to share?

I have so many special memories – friends, concerts, walks, talks. But one day does stand out. When I developed that focal dystonia, I was completing my second year of a master’s degree in composition. My life was turned upside down, so I withdrew and thought I’d likely never complete the degree. Over the years, my former composition teacher, Roger Bourland, and graduate advisor, Mary Crawford, kept reaching out and urging me to finish the degree. Finally, they convinced me. So, on a sunny day in 2005, 17 years after I’d begun my degree, I returned to the UCLA campus to stand in line with the other graduate students to submit the necessary paperwork. It was surreal – wonderfully familiar – and immensely gratifying!

  • What advice would you give to current students and young alumni of the School of Music?

Show up. Stay curious, open to possibility, present and connected to what’s going on around you. Make gratitude your primary address. Explore possibilities that might surprise you. Make bold choices. Take risks. Work very hard and demand the best of yourself. Learn how to fail – and learn from your failures. Recognize how immensely privileged you are to be able to study music, pursue a life in it, and be around other like-minded people. Be a good and supportive colleague. Be honest, but kind. Make your physical and mental health a priority. Surround yourself with people who love you for who you are, not what you do. And whenever possible, have fun with music! That’s probably where it all started for you.

Learn More about Undergraduate and Graduate degrees in Composition.

Are you an alumnus who would like to share your success with the school? Please e-mail alumni@schoolofmusic.ucla.edu. We’d love to hear from you!


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