About this Recording
8.559764 - HEGGIE, J.: Connection: 3 Song Cycles (Zona, Tagg)

Jake Heggie (b. 1961)
Natural Selection • Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia • Eve-Song


The American composer Jake Heggie is known primarily for his internationally acclaimed operas, including Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, At The Statue of Venus, and Three Decembers. But he has always been, first and foremost, a devoted songwriter. To date, he has composed more than 250 art songs as well as orchestral, choral and chamber music. For poetry and texts, he has turned to an unusual range of writers, including Maya Angelou, W.H. Auden, Charlene Baldridge, Raymond Carver, Emily Dickinson, John Hall, A.E. Housman, Galway Kinnell, Vachel Lindsay, Philip Littell, Armistead Maupin, Terrence McNally, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sister Helen Prejean, Gini Savage, Gene Scheer, Vincent Van Gogh, Frederica von Stade, and Eugenia Zukerman. He has also, on occasion, set his own texts, as in the first song of the cycle Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia.

His long-standing collaboration with writer Gene Scheer has yielded several operas as well as numerous song cycles, including Camille Claudel, Rise and Fall, Statuesque, A Question of Light, and Friendly Persuasions. With the great American playwright Terrence McNally, he created Dead Man Walking—one of the most-performed new operas of our time—and is at work on Great Scott, commissioned by The Dallas Opera for a première in 2015, starring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.

This recording features three of Heggie’s early song cycles for soprano and piano: Natural Selection (1997), Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999), and Eve-Song (1996).

Heggie states: “I wrote each of these cycles for a soprano who was an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera while I was the company’s staff writer, and before I wrote my first opera. Eve-Song was composed for Kristin Clayton, Natural Selection for Nicolle Foland, and Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia for Peggy Kriha-Dye…and each work was premiered on a Schwabacher Debut Recital in San Francisco. I knew these singers so well as close, personal friends—and was able to give them a piece they could really get inside and make their own. I wanted to give them strong, powerful, yet vulnerable women…and wanted the music to give them the opportunity to explore the many and complex facets of these women.”

Heggie’s music reflects a wide range of influences. As he says: “In these songs, the singer encounters the full gamut of the influences I grew up with: folk music, jazz, pop, opera, musical theatre, rock, art song. I encourage performers to embrace these elements in the songs and not shy away from them. If it feels jazzy, well, it probably is.”

Natural Selection (1997)

Natural Selection is a set of five songs composed in 1997 to poetry by the San Francisco Bay Area writer Gini Savage. The songs trace a young woman’s search for identity, first breaking away from her parents (Creation) to find her way in the world. The next part of her journey is a sexual awakening of desires and fantasies described in Animal Passion, set to jazzy riffs and tango rhythms. She wants to be reckless and unfettered, to experience wild abandon and passion—and imagines how thrilling it will be. In Alas! Alack! she bemoans falling over and over again for the wrong guy; and in Indian Summer – Blue we find her actually married to the wrong guy: a real Bluebeard. In Joy Alone (Connection), she at last finds contentment and happiness where it has been all along: within herself. Alone in nature, she revels in a peaceful, beautiful, vibrant connection to the earth.

Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999)

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia seems on the surface a naïve, innocent, obedient young girl—used mercilessly as a pawn in the lives of the overbearing men around her. She doesn’t exhibit any typical heroine qualities, yet she has great influence on the plot and subplots of the work. So while Ophelia doesn’t seem to have a voice, without her the story would have been very different.

In Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia, Heggie attempts to give Ophelia her voice. Through the texts (three by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and one by the composer), Ophelia exhibits the innocence and vulnerability of the character we know, but Heggie is quick to not peg her as a victim. Though she is indeed a tragic victim of circumstance, she does not view herself with a victim mentality. Heggie states that, in his song cycle, Ophelia has made the decision to take her life right from the beginning. Truth has brought her clarity. “She is very strong, smart and determined,” says Heggie. “And ultimately, the choice to kill herself is a way of exerting some power and control in the world…so from her perspective it is powerful, not sad or pathetic.”

In the first song (Ophelia’s Song) she sings: “The spring is arisen and I am a prisoner there.” In other words, she is a prisoner of eternal optimism and hope, though surrounded by darkness and death. In the next two songs, she remembers events that led her to her choice. Woman Have Loved Before finds her overjoyed that she has identified heroic, tragic women in literature who feel a burning love as deeply and powerfully as she does, though the stories always end with the heroine’s death. In the song Not in a Silver Casket, Ophelia is finally able to tell Hamlet the ways she loves him—as well as the ways she does not. Her love rejected, she comes to the end of her journey in Spring. Disappointed, angry and frustrated at the relentless, remorseless cycle of things, she at last sees her helpless place in the world. Yet, with the final “hum” of the song, she ends her life end with grace, beauty and optimism.

Eve-Song (1996)

Heggie approached the New York-born writer Philip Littell about a song cycle for soprano Kristin Clayton in 1995, and they decided to create a dramatic work that would offer a modern perspective on the biblical Eve. Heggie has stated that a real singing actress is required for this large group of eight songs. In particular, the first song (My Name) requires vast, imaginative resources from a singer, as it alternately explores lullaby, recitative, arioso, a Kurt Weill parody, and a ballad. It is quixotic and hard to pin down, just like Eve herself. In this song, Heggie imagines Eve is an old woman rocking her grandchild (also named Eve) on a porch in the South…and the memories come flooding back.

The second song, (Even) is one of beauty, sadness and wonder as Eve sits beside a river and observes the world at sundown. A long, arching vocal line is accompanied by a gently swirling piano figure—the introduction of the winding, seductive snake motif that will be developed in subsequent songs.

It was Eve’s job to name the animals of the newly formed Earth, and Good is her light-hearted, joyful romp in not only naming them, but figuring out which ones are best to eat. This leads her, inevitably, to the apple.

Listen follows as the start of a deeper, sensual awareness and awakening for Eve. There is a shiver and shudder of excitement and anticipation as the snake’s words entice and caress Eve’s imagination. Snake is the full awakening of that imagination in a swinging tune that introduces the freedom of jazz. Eve follows the snake as he leads her through shadow and light, and convinces her to bite the apple. With that bite comes a stunning awakening—and a range of tastes and feelings she had never known, ranging from sweet, sour, salty and bitter to rotten. “Now I know,” she says.

Woe to Man is Eve’s stinging curse to all men, performed as an old-fashioned, music hall showcase. With her new knowledge, she also possesses an awareness of how she is discriminated against, stereotyped, discounted and cast out. She cries out for all women against this outrage.

The Wound is a slow, tender lullaby about birth and the sharing of legacy. It is the story of a single child, and that of the entire human race. It leads to the final song in the cycle (The Farm) in which Eve, as an old woman, tries to remember details about Eden. In Heggie’s words: “She tries to find the words, the tune, the memory…and it is difficult, because she has moved on without bitterness. She chooses to remember the good, though a current of sorrow and hurt will always be part of what makes her Eve.”

Kathleen Tagg, Regina Zona and Jake Heggie

Close the window