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Jake Heggie, Opera Composer

  • By Heather Goyette, Marty Sohl
  • Published Jul 1, 2002 8:00 AM

"The ability to draw a normal breath — like we all do — but then to have this glorious sound come out with the exhalation. It's just miraculous. I'm in awe of it every time it happens." Jake Heggie, composer and UCLA alumnus, is talking about opera singers. He's had good reason to notice the power of these singers. Heggie's major work to date is the "Dead Man Walking" opera, which he composed for the San Francisco Opera in 2000.

Heggie was only 11 when he took his first baby steps toward becoming a composer, At age 16, he began his first private lessons. Composer Ernst Bacon "introduced me to setting text and the rest is history, I think," he said. That "history" includes more than 150 songs as well as solo instrumental, chamber, choral and orchestral works.

"It's a great tragedy in this country that music has been cut from the core curriculum of most schools," says Heggie. "You can't really teach somebody to compose or to be inspired ... it just happens or it doesn't." His own first experiences with music were in public school, and after studying piano at the American College in Paris, Heggie returned to his public schooling at UCLA.

Heggie cites those years as "my time to learn technique, discipline, connection … and that there is no substitute for hard work. Music is incredibly demanding, but the rewards are astonishing." Heggie earned his Bachelor of Arts in music in 1984. His hard work was rewarded with the prestigious Henry Mancini prize, but he values his time at UCLA most for his mentors and contemporaries.

"I've benefited in every way imaginable from my experience at UCLA ... lifelong friendships, and a loving support system that has been invaluable through good times and bad." Besides studying composition with Paul Des Marais, David Raksin, Roger Bourland and Paul Reale, Heggie studied piano with Johana Harris, who he says, "taught me about connections between music and real life that I had never made ... a deeper sense of meaning and connection that had been missing."

His final advice? Expose your true emotions. "You need to be willing to be naked in your music, the same way you expect a performer to bare it all on stage, emotionally speaking."