If I Were You
A WORLD PREMIERE, August 1 — 6, 2019
San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre
The Merola Opera Program presents its first commissioned work, the world premiere of the new full-length opera, If I Were You, by distinguished American composer Jake Heggie and noted librettist Gene Scheer.Learn More
❝ It has long been a dream of mine to write a full-length stage work especially for the Merola Opera Program to celebrate its legacy and spotlight its important place in the world of opera. I’m absolutely over the moon that the time has come with If I Were You. ❞
–Composer JAKE HEGGIE
If I Were You is based on a novel by Julien Green, who was born in Paris in 1900 to American parents. Green's work, written in French but heavily influenced by American authors such as Poe, Twain, Faulkner, Penn Warren, Welty, and Hawthorne, often deals with doppelgangers and the conflict between purity and passion. Gene Scheer's libretto updates the setting to the present day. It is a Faustian/Jekyll & Hyde story with an element of magical realism which is new ground for Heggie and Scheer. The story begins with the hero, Fabian, nearly dying in a car crash. The devil, in the guise of a beautiful, seductive woman, offers him the power to breathe his soul into another person so that he can live their life instead of his own. He can live forever this way, if he chooses, moving from body to body. As the shy Fabian becomes a wealthy older man, a young handsome brute, and eventually a young woman, the opera will deal with issues of age, power, sexual politics, and gender identity that are both timeless and very much part of the contemporary zeitgeist.
❝ If I Were You has been one of the most challenging, inspiring and rewarding projects of my career – up there with Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick. It is a big, dramatic, powerful story of identity, love and loss that feels timely and timeless, American and universal, human and supernatural. ❞
—Composer Jake Heggie
Jake continues, "After composing It’s A Wonderful Life, I was hungry for a very different kind of project: one that would demand a dark, complicated psychology and poetry, and a musical language to match. A modern-day Faust story seemed just the thing: something in the world of magic realism that I have not yet explored. This score has pushed me into new territory as a composer and allowed me to find new levels of expression."
"It’s always difficult to describe music in words," Jake says. "The whole point is for the music to take us to places that the words alone cannot. I feel the score to If I Were You does this. It creates an eerily beautiful soundscape filled with the arching, long-line lyricism I love and allows for great characters and deep drama to unfold in operatic terms. I can’t think of an opera that is quite like it – which is both exciting and terrifying. But I feel it is very much an essential story for our time, and I’m on fire with the possibilities."
Jake Heggie, Composer
Based in San Francisco, the internationally renowned composer has a long and successful history with both San Francisco Opera, and the Merola Opera Program - many of whose participants have starred in his operas on stages around the world. “Throughout my career as a composer and pianist, I’ve had the great opportunity to collaborate with an array of dazzling singers. Time and again, I’m delighted to discover how many of them have a connection with the great Merola Opera Program.” said Heggie. “What an indelible difference Merola has made as the standard bearer for young artist programs! Just consider its history and the number of brilliant careers that have begun with Merola. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of composing roles and songs for Merolini, and the pleasure of seeing them inhabit and create characters in my operas.”
Jake Heggie is the composer of the acclaimed operas Dead Man Walking (libretto by Terrence McNally), Moby-Dick (libretto by Gene Scheer), It’s A Wonderful Life (Scheer), Great Scott (McNally), Three Decembers (Scheer), The End of the Affair (libretto by Heather McDonald), Out of Darkness (Scheer), To Hell and Back (Scheer), and The Radio Hour (Scheer). He has also composed chamber, choral and orchestral works, as well as more than 250 art songs, many for today’s most revered singers, including Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming, Audra McDonald, Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato, Jamie Barton, Sasha Cooke, Frederica von Stade, Stephen Costello, and Bryn Terfel, among many others. His operas have been produced extensively on five continents with major productions in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Diego, Washington DC, Dallas, Houston, Dresden, Vienna, Cape Town, Sydney, Adelaide, Montreal, Calgary, Dublin, Malmö, and Copenhagen. Dead Man Walking has received nearly 70 international productions since its premiere in San Francisco, as well as two live recordings. Moby-Dick was telecast nationally as part of Great Performances’ 40th season and released on DVD (EuroArts).
Gene Scheer, Librettist
Gene Scheer’s work is noted for its scope and versatility. With Heggie, he has collaborated on many projects, including the critically acclaimed 2010 Dallas Opera world premiere, Moby-Dick, starring Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab; Three Decembers (Houston Grand Opera), which starred Frederica von Stade; and the lyric drama To Hell and Back (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), which featured Patti LuPone. Other works by Scheer and Heggie include Camille Claudel: Into the fire, a song cycle premiered by Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet. Scheer worked as librettist with Tobias Picker on An American Tragedy, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Other collaborations include the lyrics for Wynton Marsalis’s It Never Goes Away, featured in Marsalis’s work Congo Square.
With the composer Steven Stucky, Scheer wrote the oratorio August 4, 1964, for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, nominated for a Grammy in 2012 for Best Classical Composition. Other operas include Everest (Joby Talbot), and Cold Mountain (Jennifer Higdon), which won the International Opera Award for the best world premiere in 2015 and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Composition. In 2016, Scheer and Heggie premiered an operatic adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, which was presented by San Francisco Opera in November 2018. Also a composer, Scheer has written songs for talents such as Renée Fleming, Sylvia McNair, Stephanie Blythe, Jennifer Larmore, Denyce Graves, and Nathan Gunn.
Keturah Stickann, Director
Ms. Stickann is a frequent collaborator with theater and opera director, Leonard Foglia. She was the choreographer for It’s a Wonderful Life for its Houston Grand Opera debut and subsequent performances at Indiana University. She was the choreographer and movement director for the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick in Dallas in 2010, traveling around the world with the production, and was the revival director for its return to Dallas Opera. Also with Mr. Foglia, she is the associate director and choreographer for the mariachi opera: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera, and is still touring, was the assistant director for the world premiere of Cold Mountain (Santa Fe Opera), the choreographer for A Coffin In Egypt (Houston Grand Opera), and his assistant for the tour of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show: Let Me Down Easy.
Ms. Stickann's other directing and choreographic credits include Pelléas et Mélisande (West Edge Opera), Turandot (San Diego Opera), L'Orfeo ed Euridice (Florida Grand Opera), Norma (Opera Southwest), Seven Deadly Sins/Pagliacci (Virginia Opera), Macbeth (Kentucky Opera), Don Quichotte (San Diego Opera), L’Orfeo (Chautauqua Opera), Lucia di Lammermoor (Opera Colorado), Orpheus and Euridice (Vermont Opera Project), Flight (Opera Fayetteville), Don Giovanni (Janiec Opera Company, Virginia Opera), Rigoletto (Opera Memphis), The Tales of Hoffman (Knoxville Opera), Manon (Knoxville Opera), La tragédie de Carmen (Janiec Opera Company), Madama Butterfly (Opera Santa Barbara).
Nicole Paiement, Conductor
Conductor Nicole Paiement has gained an international reputation as a conductor of contemporary music and opera, with numerous recordings including many world premieres. As Artistic Director of Opera Parallèle, Paiement has conducted many new productions, including: world premieres of Luciano Chessa’s commissioned opera A Heavenly Act, the commissioned chamber version of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, the premiere of the re-orchestration of Terence Blanchard’s Champion in collaboration with SFJAZZ Center; the American Premieres of Adam Gorb’s Anya 17 and Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness; the San Francisco Bay Area return of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; and a new production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, among others. Additionally, Paiement has been the Artistic Director of the BluePrint Project at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) where she has commissioned, premiered, and recorded works from a wide variety of living American composers.
SUPPORT for If I Were You
Betty Poetz Ferguson Foundation
Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation
John A. & Cynthia Fry Gunn
Jack H. Lund Foundation
Diane B. Wilsey
Barbara Bruser & Richard Clark
Mary & Craig Henderson
Scott & Susan Lord
Donna & Nordin Blacker
Carlyn Clause & Alexander Brainerd
Jayne & Peter Davis
Frances K. and Charles D. Field Foundation
Franklin P. & Catherine Johnson
James Noe III
Bernard & Barbro Osher
Ululani Foundation—Steve & Diane Heiman
Bruce & Fran Walker
This production of If I Were You is sponsored in part by the Amphion Foundation and the Bernard Osher Foundation.
PEARL CAST (August 1 & 4)
Brittomara: Cara Collins
Fabian: Michael Day
Diana: Esther Tonea
Selena: Patricia Westley
Putnam: Rafael Porto
Paul: Timothy Murray
David: Brandon Scott Russell
Rachel: Edith Grossman
Jonathan: Edward Laurenson
Two Women: Chelsea Lehnea, Amber R. Monroe
EMERALD CAST (August 3 & 6
Brittomara: Brennan Blankenship
Fabian: Nicholas Huff
Diana: Anne-Marie MacIntosh
Selena: Elisa Sunshine
Putnam: Rafael Porto
Paul: Timothy Murray
David: Brandon Scott Russell
Rachel: Edith Grossman
Jonathan: Edward Laurenson
Two Women: Chelsea Lehnea, Amber R. Monroe
If I Were You is double-cast to give more of our 2019 Merola Artists a chance to create roles in a new work. This also gives the 2019 apprentice coaches and apprentice stage director the opportunity to work directly with a composer and librettist on a new opera. With more and more opera companies premiering new works, participating in a world premiere will be invaluable training for this group of young artists. If I Were You will also be a piece ideally suited to other training programs, conservatories, and regional opera companies, immeasurably enriching the modern opera repertoire.
Opera on the Couch
During the highly successful four performances of Merola’s first commissioned opera, If I Were You, in early August, Merola arranged with the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis (SFCP) to have two psychologists speak about some psychoanalytic insights into the opera. SFCP regularly offers this program following a number of operas performed by the San Francisco Opera. On August 4, following the matinee performance at Books Inc, a few blocks north of the Veterans Building, where the opera was performed, Dr. Steven Goldberg of SFCP introduced the two psychologists, Dr. Adam Blum and Dr. Celeste Schneider, who delighted the audience of close to 40 people, who had just seen the opera, with stimulating analyses. What follows is a summary of each of their presentations. Anyone wishing to receive a copy of the full presentation may email them at their respective addresses: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I Were You (Discussion) (Summary)
Adam Blum, Psy.D.
If I Were You offers us a meditation on a paradox: If I were you, I wouldn’t be me; but if I were not you, if we many were not one ‘us,’ then we could only ever host lost souls, and never become ourselves in the first place. The way we humans most reliably blend the soloism of ‘I and you’ is by becoming an octave, a chorus of musical movement, an audience for the ecstasies and tragedies of being human. We are always already being moved by the forces of history swirling within and around us — perhaps never so evocatively as when we are immersed in musical experience, especially music as layered and stirring as the harmonic world of this opera. We are trying, when immersed in music, to literally make sense of it, to engage our senses in the sensuousness of sound and silence, vibration and stillness. We turn to others — parents, artists, therapists — hoping they will invite us into the cultural practices, the forms of collective movement, that nourish and cultivate our sense of being alive.
The capacity to replenish one’s aliveness through a community of accessible humanity always depends upon the availability of people for whom engaging with one another is not a zero-sum game, for whom coming together is not, in the parlance of this opera, eclipsing one another; those who have not, like fallen angels, had so much taken from them that they feel they have nothing left to give, and are driven insatiably to relieve the panic of starvation by greedily consuming anything that cannot elude their desperate grasp; for whom taking is its own end, the only end. They are possessed by the ghosts of what they cannot bear to lose, waiting for us to melt into their dark oblivion, leaving nothing but dust in their wake. Without collective ways of mourning that which was never or is no longer ours to keep, we are only made crazy by our longing, haunted by the legacy of what was taken from us.
It is because the world is too much to ever let go that we need to periodically let ourselves go, to lose ourselves in one another when we are inevitably destroyed by loss. And if this need — to “grieve and touch and remember” in our mysterious, aching, mournful rituals — if this need is never met, then we miss the opportunity to learn how to use one another; not only to bear loss, to bear losing the world, but to learn how to move through it. The rituals that helps us bear the reality of returning to the stardust whence we came preserve a collective dream of being remembered, a dream of membership, a dream we dream together every time we say goodbye to one of our own, every time the curtain falls, every time the music swells like a violent storm and then fades into the horizon, leaving us “sailing across an ocean of dreams...anyone,” and “no one at all.”
If I Were You: Everything is the Same and Different
Celeste Schneider, PhD
If I Were You is about personal transformation. The vivid performances by the Merola cast invite us to engage our imaginations and identify with the various characters on an epic journey that ends with a dream-like awakening. As sung by ingénue Diana, after such an experience everything is the same and different at the same time.
The artistry of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, directed by Keturah Stickann and conducted into life by Nicole Paiement, puts us into direct contact with the “light-hearted” existential quandary —What is the meaning of life? — while confronting us with the dualities of life and death, tenderness and tyranny, and the mystery of the other.
The opera opens with a fading heartbeat—it stops! Then a startling shock. The audience is in the dark ... is this the Big Bang of a creative unknown potential? An electrical Frankenstein current resurrecting Fabian from his lonely life? We discover it is both.
Fabian’s powerful struggles between life and death are embodied in his relationship with Diana, his unrequited love interest, and Brittomara, the devil incarnate. Through Diana’s love, Fabian has the chance to embark on a lively but unknown future. Brittomara offers Fabian the chance to be anyone he chooses If he gives over the one thing that is truly and uniquely his — his soul. So what does Fabian choose? Does he take Brittomara’s offer to sing someone else’s song — a cover, so to speak? Or can he find his own voice to sing a duet with Diana? Since Fabian feels himself invisible, he chooses to be another in order to be seen and loved by Diana.
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott has a wonderful quote: “It is
a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” When we first meet Fabian he is lost and unfound. Diana sees Fabian beyond appearances — reminiscent of Shakespeare’s notion, “love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,” or as the fox reminds the prince in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” This sight is how we recognize our loved ones through a sound of a step, a composer through a musical phrase, or an author through a literary turn— expressions of their souls.
Nobel Prize-awarded South African novelist J.M. Coetzee acknowledges that these sense recognitions of the other can only be experienced through serendipity in a world of chance — through a blink of an eyelid and in the cracks and chinks of an unknowable world. But, in complete and utter contrast, Brittomara operates in an omnipotent and omniscient world — she knows and sees EVERYTHING. No chance discovery of the heart there. So what is to become of Fabian as he is both lost and found? In the Faustian tradition, Fabian chooses to seal the deal and makes a pact with the devil tragically predetermining his fate.
Though musical motifs, Fabian’s presence and identity whispers through the musical composition. His leitmotif, a haunting sad melody, becomes known to Diana, whose own motifs are a more energetic mambo and transcendent hallelujah. Fabian begins to sing her hallelujah, and his sad solo begins to transform to a more lively duet. All the while, Brittomara’s dark counterpoint to Diana’s influence continues to diminish Fabian’s soul. Fabian becomes increasingly possessed by Brittomara and less self-possessed through his love with Diana.
Musically and through the opera’s action, it becomes increasingly difficult to locate where Fabian’s song begins and ends as he loses himself and melds into other characters. By trying to be someone richer, more powerful, handsomer, Fabian is inevitably lost to himself and Diana. One hopes for a reversal of fate, or to discover this was all a dream, but Fabian’s soul has fallen into the clutches of Brittomara. In her torch song, no one will ever know that it ever existed at all---she doesn’t have to do a thing, not a thing. She just watches and waits.
So, what kind of dream or nightmare does one traverse when following Fabian’s journey. The opera comes to a close with Brittomara turning to the audience and directly reminding us all that none of us are exempt from this existential struggle to tolerate the more vulnerable human condition of an unknown future. Might we sell our own souls for the false promise of something more certain or everlasting? At what cost? The audience is left to decide their fates upon awakening from this operatic dream — If I Were You.
The Making of If I Were You - Part 1
Merola Opera Program presents the world premiere of If I Were You an opera in two acts by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, opening at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 1 - 6, 2019. Watch now to learn about what went into creating If I Were You.
The Making of If I Were You - Part 2
Merola Opera Program presents the world premiere of If I Were You an opera in two acts by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, opening at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 1-6. Watch now to learn the story of If I Were You and meet characters Fabian and Brittomara.
The Making of If I Were You - Part 3
Merola Opera Program presents the world premiere of If I Were You, an opera in two acts by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, opening at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 1 - 6, 2019. Watch now to learn more about the character Fabian and his journey in the story of If I Were You.
The Making of If I Were You - Part 4
Watch the world premiere of If I Were You being created. Hear from composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, director Keturah Stickann and her design team about how they see this new opera coming together and what you'll see on stage in August.