If I Were You

Merola Opera Program Commission

If I Were You

In 2019, San Francisco’s acclaimed Merola Opera Program will present its first commissioned work in the program’s 62-year history, the world premiere of the new full-length opera, If I Were You, by distinguished American composer Jake Heggie and noted librettist Gene Scheer. This ground-breaking work will be presented August 1 – 6, 2019, at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.

Called “arguably the world’s most popular 21st century opera and art song composer” by The Wall Street Journal, Heggie says, “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.”
If I Were You publicity artwork

The world premiere of If I Were You would not be possible without the generous support of these lead sponsors. If you are interested in making a gift in support of this special project, call Jean Kellogg at (415) 936-2321 or email her at this link: Jean Kellogg at merola dot org. For another article on our commission, read this link to newsletter article.

Betty Poetz Ferguson Foundation
Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation
Jack H. Lund Foundation
Ululani Foundation

Donna and Nordin Blacker
Barbara Bruser and Richard Clark
Carlyn Clause and Alexander L. Brainerd
Jayne and Peter Davis
Mary and Craig Henderson
Franklin and Catherine Johnson
Bernice Lindstrom
Scott and Susan Lord
James A. Noe III
Bruce and Fran Walker
Susan York

Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie picture
Jake Heggie, Photo © Ellen Appel
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 50 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

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.
Gene Scheer picture
Gene Scheer

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 will be 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.
Loosely based on the novel Si j’étais vous by the French-American writer Julien Green, If I Were You is a contemporary story of identity with echoes of classical literature, from Faust to Jekyll & Hyde. The lead character is Fabian Hart, an aspiring writer who yearns for adventure and a way out of his stifling existence. Brittomara, a shape-shifting devil, appears to him in many guises, finally offering Fabian a supernatural power that will allow the writer to transfer his soul into other people’s bodies, living their lives as their own souls languish in a shadowy netherworld. Thus begins the journey of If I Were You as Fabian moves his increasingly lost soul from person to person in search of a better identity, leaving a trail of human wreckage and hollow shells. When the promise of profound love compels him to return to his original body, he must face the great existential question: live an immortal but lonely existence as someone else, or face imminent death while deeply loved as yourself?

“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,” Heggie says. “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. 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.”

If I Were You will receive additional development in San Francisco in January 2019, with private workshops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, before receiving its fully staged world premiere the following August.

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.

Director Keturah Stickann 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).
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 his 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.

Merola Opera Program is widely regarded as the foremost opera training program for aspiring singers, coach accompanists, and stage directors. Each summer some 29 Merola artists, selected from more than 800 international applicants, participate in master classes and private coaching with opera’s most accomplished singers, conductors, and directors, and then present concerts and fully-staged operas to the public. Participants also receive training in foreign languages, diction, acting, and stage movement. Offered free of charge for all participants, the Merola Opera Program is entirely unique in the industry in many ways.

It is the only young artist program to provide financial support to developing artists for five years following participation, offering financial aid for essential career development costs including coaching, language classes, and audition travel. In addition, only Merola graduates are considered for participation in the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship Program. Merola has served as a proving ground for hundreds of artists, who have gone on to extensive careers in opera, including Anna Netrebko, Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette, Nadine Sierra, Elza van den Heever, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Dolora Zajick, Brian Jagde, Stuart Skeleton, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Lucas Meachem, and Patrick Summers among many others.


  1. Why did Merola decide to commission a new opera?

    a. There is a dearth of chamber operas with orchestration of 35 or less, with numerous feature roles for the singers, and little or no chorus. Commissioning this opera will benefit both Merola and numerous regional opera companies, as well as conservatories around the world. It will also be a wonderful training experience for the Merola artists involved.
    b. Commissioning an opera offers us the opportunity to apply to new foundations we don’t currently qualify for, and reach out to new donors who have an interest in new works but haven’t supported training programs in the past.

  2. How does the commission fit with Merola's mission?

    Our mission is "the continuing education and professional training of the finest young operatic talent and the development of this talent into professional opera singers, coaches, conductors, and directors at the highest artistic caliber." Working with a living composer and librettist on a new work is wonderful training for both the singers and the pianists and stage director. With more and more opera companies doing new works, they will likely be working on world premieres in the future and this piece will give them invaluable experience. It will also give us a work ideally suited to young voices to add to our repertoire in succeeding years so it will a wonderful training tool for many groups Merola artists.

  3. Why choose an obscure French novel as the subject?

    Jake and Gene had long wanted to adapt this book and have been highly inspired by the topic and the story’s universal topic.

  4. This sounds like a Faust story. Why do we need another Faustian opera?

    If I Were You offers a fresh take on this classic theme with the central character inhabiting different bodies and personalities. It deals with issues of age, power, sexual politics, and gender identity that are at once timeless and very much part of the contemporary zeitgeist.

  5. Why did you choose Jake Heggie?

    Jake has had a long association with Merola. He is one of the most highly regarded, successful opera composers in the world today. He also has a keen understanding of how to write for the voice, which is especially important for young singers. Jake’s numerous successes include Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, Great Scott and It’s a Wonderful Life, in addition to dozens of art songs.

  6. How much will the commission cost?

    The cost of the commission is commensurate with the fees for composers and librettists of Jake’s and Gene's stature.

  7. Is Merola’s fiscal health solid enough to handle something on this scale?

    Merola is fiscally sound and most every year our operations are in the black. We have a robust endowment as well. Our membership is stable and growing, and our commission is already bringing in not only new gifts, but new donors to Merola. We believe this is a perfect time to expand the impact Merola has on the opera community.

  8. Will it cause a deficit?

    No. Just the opposite. We have planned out a fundraising strategy, which will enable us to reach out to foundations and donors who wouldn’t otherwise give to Merola. In addition, we have funds from the Jack H. Lund Charitable Trust that allow us to pursue this opportunity.

  9. Where do you plan to get the funds?

    From individual donors ($415K already pledged), foundations who support new works ($325K already pledged), and the Jack H. Lund Charitable Trust funds already earmarked for the Commission ($100K).

  10. Where will it be performed?

    In Herbst Theatre. There will be four performances (double cast), plus two community previews in the 2019 summer. We will be able to remount this work in the future.

  11. Are other companies involved as co-commissioners?

    We pursued several regional opera companies as co-commissioners, but do not have any confirmed. We are seeking co-productions, as well as production rentals.

  12. Wouldn’t a standard opera provide a more valuable experience for young artists?

    Working with a living composer and librettist on a new work is wonderful training for both the singers and the pianists and stage director. With more and more opera companies doing new works, they will more than likely be working on world premieres in the future and this piece will give them invaluable experience. It will also give us a work ideally suited to young voices to add to our repertoire in succeeding years so it will be a wonderful training tool for many groups Merola artists.

  13. What is the process of choosing which Merola artists will be performing in the world premiere? How are they picked out?

    As in any year, our artistic staff, Sheri Greenawald and Mark Morash, will hold auditions in cities across the country. They will cast the world premiere from the artists they select at those auditions for the 2019 Merola program.

  14. Will this become an annual opera performed by Merola artists each summer?

    It won't be performed annually, but we anticipate it will become part of our repertoire of operas suited to young voices and will be performed frequently. Part of the reason for the commission is to have a chamber opera that is artful, challenging, and suited to young voices and that does not have a large chorus.

  15. Will you bring in past Merola artists for the world premiere? If not, why? If so, who?

    No, the world premiere will be performed by the new group of artists chosen to participate in Merola's 2019 training program. The whole idea of the commission is to create a vehicle for young artists in the training program and to give the 2019 Merola artists the experience of participating in the creation of a new work. However, several Merola alums have been hired to sing in the workshop slated for January 2019.

  16. Why don’t you perform everything at Herbst or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts?

    The cost is prohibitively expensive. It could easily double our current budget.