Merola Commissions its First Opera

Merola Commissions its First Opera

The summer of 2019 will mark a major milestone for Merola – the world premiere of our first-ever opera commission, If I Were You, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.

It is difficult to find lyrical and challenging operas suited to young voices, especially works that do not involve a large chorus, and also with an orchestra of 30 musicians or less. With this in mind, Merola made the decision to commission a new opera suited to young voices. In looking for a composer, we immediately thought of the multi-talented Jake Heggie, who has a long history of working with Merola alumni.

If I Were You is based on the novel Si j’étais vous by Julien Green, who was born in Paris in 1900 to American parents. Green spent most of his life in France and moved in a Parisian literary milieu that included Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, François Mauriac, André Gide, and Jean Cocteau. Though Green's work, which often deals with doppelgangers and the conflict between purity and passion, was influenced by American authors such as Poe, Twain, Faulkner, Penn Warren, Welty, and Hawthorne, he wrote in French and was the first American elected to the prestigious Académie Française. Gene Scheer's libretto updates the setting of If I Were You 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.

Jake says, "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. 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."

The world premiere will be double-cast to give more of our 2019 Merola Artists a chance to create roles in a new work. It will also give 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.

"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."