News Column

Composer benefited from arts in Bexley school

November 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 01--The acclaimed composer of Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking and other ambitious operas credits his childhood in Bexley with setting him on his career path.

"I got a great education in Bexley, in all subjects; that gave me a really solid foundation," said Jake Heggie, a San Francisco resident.

"There was a great emphasis on the arts, so I didn't feel like a freak for loving piano, music and musical theater."

A San Francisco Opera performance of his latest work, Moby-Dick, will air tonight on PBS stations -- a rare broadcast of a new opera, especially one staged outside New York.

"It's an American story that strikes an international chord," said the 52-year-old, who acknowledged his excitement about the Great Performances presentation.

Opera has been unfairly marginalized by pop culture, he said.

"It's actually an amazing world of music and theater that's alive and well."

Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer adapted Moby-Dick -- which premiered in 2010 at the Dallas Opera -- from the classic 1851 Herman Melville novel about Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of a white whale.

"I knew we needed something very bold, American and splashy," said Heggie, who was born in Florida and lived in Bexley with his family from 1966 to 1977.

"Melville created a microcosm of the world with various cultures, ethnicities and beliefs, all floating on the ocean very much the way the Earth floats through space. I saw great drama, beautiful language and the possibility for beautiful solos and ensembles."

Opera singer Peggy Kriha Dye, general manager of Opera Columbus, raves about the composer.

"His music is very lyrical and melodic, with lots of new ideas and yet extremely beautiful," said Kriha Dye, who has known Heggie since the 1990s.

Heggie credits three "extremely nurturing" piano teachers -- Anna Mae Millard, Ann Swesty and Joe Weissberg -- for guiding him toward the arts after a tragedy.

In 1972, when he was 10, his father -- a doctor and musician -- committed suicide.

"I started writing music right after my dad died," said Heggie, the third of four children. " Music was a very safe place at a very vulnerable time in my life. I felt empowered and successful when making music."

He used the money he earned delivering The Dispatch from 1973 to '77 to buy scores.

Sara Pfaff, his English teacher at Bexley High School, isn't surprised by his success.

"It was so obvious that he was creative, even in high school," said Pfaff, a Bexley resident. " Jake always had a different way of looking at life and interpreting literature."

In addition to his work on Moby-Dick and Dead Man Walking (2000), Heggie composed the operas The End of the Affair (2004), At the Statue of Venus (2005) and To Hell and Back (2006).

A passion for the genre, he said, is important.

"Opera can take three to five years to write from the first idea to opening night," he said, "so you'd better care about it a lot."

mgrossberg@dispatch.com

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