The American composer Jake Heggie has been among the most successful creators of opera on the contemporary American scene, with subject matter including Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean's book on capital punishment, and the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick.
The composer of nine operas, produced on five continents, Heggie has also written choral music, chamber music, songs (more than 300), and orchestral works. Heggie was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, on March 31, 1961, but grew up mostly in Columbus, Ohio. He began writing music after the suicide of his father, a doctor, in 1972. He studied composition at the American College in Paris and at the University of California, Los Angeles, where one of his teachers was Johana Harris (1912-1995), the widow of composer Roy Harris. The two became romantically involved and married in 1982; after Harris' death, Heggie married singer Curt Branom in 2008. Heggie also studied piano, and the two performed as a duo until he began to suffer from focal dystonia. He worked in the field of music public relations at UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Opera; the latter position gave him access to the soprano Frederica von Stade, who performed his Three Folk Songs. San Francisco Opera director Lofti Mansouri suggested that Heggie write an opera. The result was a two-year composer-in-residence position at the Opera and the two-act opera Dead Man Walking (2000), with a libretto by playwright Terrance McNally; Prejean's book had already been made into a film starring Sean Penn, and audiences were familiar with the story. The opera has been given more than 40 productions in various countries. Heggie's other operas include Again (2000), which imagines an abusive relationship between Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball; The End of the Affair (2003); At the Statue of Venus (2005); To Hell and Back (2006); For a Look or a Touch (2007, about the persecution of gays during the Holocaust); Three Decembers (2008); Moby Dick (2010, featured in 2012 on the U.S. national television broadcast Great Performances); Music of Remembrance (2006-2013, forming the full-length Out of Darkness, 2016); the chamber opera The Radio Hour (2014); Great Scott (2015, one of several Heggie works where opera itself is the subject), It's a Wonderful Life (2016, based on the Frank Capra film); and If I Were You (2019, based on the Faust legend). Many of the libretti for these works were written by McNally or Gene Scheer. The prolific Heggie has also written many works in other genres; 2014's Ahab Symphony is one of the most widely performed. His orchestral songs Here/After: Songs for Lost Voices, with text by Scheer, appeared in 2013 on the Netherlands' PentaTone label, with mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has collaborated several times with Heggie.