This week the Houston Grand Opera raises the current on It’s a Wonderful Life, an operatic adaptation of the classic holiday story. It’s a world premiere for the original work by composer Jack Heggie, whose previous credits include Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, which both won critical acclaim. Together with HGO, Heggie set out to create something unique yet familiar and endearing for the opera audience—a piece that spoke to the sentiment of the holiday season.

He settled on the story, which most know through the 1946 Frank Capra film, that follows the emotional journey of George Bailey. Distraught by unfortunate events in his life, George is contemplating suicide when he’s visited by an angel who shows him what the world might have been like without him. Using a simple but mesmerizing set comprised of glass doors to the past, the HGO production is a definite departure from previous adaptations of Life, yet its ability to elicit audience compassion for the characters is even more acute. 

Heggie spoke with us about his own emotional journey and bringing It’s a Wonderful Life to the opera stage.

Talk a bit about this production. What about reimagining an American classic spoke to you?

It’s really the story, this big emotional journey that George and the angel go on together. That spoke to me as being operatic.  This is a beloved holiday classic that people come to again and again. So when (HGO Artistic and Music Director) Patrick Summers asked me about doing a holiday opera, I came to this story… Currently a lot of opera companies at holiday time do Hansel & Gretel, which ends in cannibalism, or La Boheme—not exactly holiday material. I wanted to do a meaningful piece for the holiday season, which is about community and gathering. I think this story in particular is perfect for that.

It’s been done as a radio play and a musical but never as an opera, which I think allows you an even richer emotional trajectory…You have this great music of the 20s, 30s and 40s that we were able to incorporate along with big dance numbers. What matters in opera is material that demands to be sung rather than spoken. Here you have a man at the center of the story on such a desperate journey and the people around him who love him are desperate to help him find his way. There is an emotion here that music can help tell better. And certainly our goal was always to recreate the story for the opera stage, never to try and put the film on stage.

Putting something of this magnitude together takes a lot of commitment, from you and from an entire team. How do you get the results you want?

You say what you need and are very clear and honest and authentic about it. You know what you need to make the piece work and you insist on a level of professionalism and understanding from the beginning. When you have a vision that you believe in and are true to, you have to find a way to make it happen. That doesn’t mean you’re not open to ideas—opera is a collaborative process and everyone must be involved.

You’ve produced some very well-regarded operas and certainly some of that is fed by your own experience. Talk a bit about what it was like to come out as a gay man later in life and how that informed your work.  

I was coming to grips with being gay in the 80s during the AIDS crisis. I had gotten married to a woman because I felt that was more acceptable. Then it’s the early 90s and I’m a guy working in the opera house in San Francisco and it was more or less assumed I was gay! I didn’t have to pretend who I was. It was so liberating because I didn’t have to pretend anymore, which had been so exhausting. I tell people all the time who are starting out, you have to get out of your way, be true to yourself. When I stopped pretending and living this false life, that’s when I began to be free. And that’s also when I could begin to write anything, that freedom opened me up as a writer.

Opera has to be richly emotional, or else why put it on stage…Wanting to belong is a common theme in my writing because I know that emotional journey. Dead Man Walking was that for me. Moby Dick, another opera about finding one’s place in the world. I can empathize with these characters and then find a music that responds to their situation—that’s my job as a composer.

What do you hope audiences experience with this new production?

It’s wonderful when people are already aware of the title and the subject; they’re not going in asking “what is this” but rather “how are they going to do it?” I hope people come with an open mind and heart and they leave moved and perhaps changed in some way. They’re going on a big emotional journey together with the characters.

It's a Wonderful Life runs December 2 - 17 at the Wortham Theater.