There can be few filmgoers or TV viewers who’ve not heard of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life – and since 2016, this uplifting and inspirational story has also found its way into the opera repertoire, thanks to composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. These gifted artists premiered their work at Houston Grand Opera two years ago, and San Francisco Opera is now staging the West Coast premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at the War Memorial Opera House.
The production stars tenor William Burden as George Bailey – the businessman who feels that life simply isn’t worth living any longer – South African soprano Golda Schultz as the angel Clara, who comes to his rescue, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman is George’s ever-supportive wife Mary Hatch, and baritone Rod Gilfry is the banker, Mr Potter.
The conductor is Patrick Summers – who led the world premiere season in Houston – direction is by Leonard Foglia, set design by Robert Brill, costumes are by David C Woolard, lighting by Brian Nason, the projection designer is Elaine J McCarthy and Keturah Stickann is the choreographer.
Heggie and Scheer’s opera is based in part on the Frank Capra film, which in turn took its inspiration from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. This story, entitled The Greatest Gift, which apparently came to the author in a dream one night, told of a man named George Pratt who contemplates suicide, until he’s given an opportunity to see what the world would have been like without his having lived. Stern was unable to find a publisher for his story, so he self-published it in a small pamphlet, and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas Card. Frank Capra – one of the foremost filmmakers of the 1930s, and three-times Academy Award winner – happened to see one of these pamphlets, he showed it to James Stewart, and the film which we know as It’s a Wonderful Life became firmly rooted in the Christmas tradition. It currently ranks as 24th in IMDb’s Top 250 films.
Guggenheim Fellow, master teacher, mentor and guest artist, San Francisco resident Jake Heggie is an award-winning composer who began his career at San Francisco Opera with Dead Man Walking in 2000. He has gone on to write a succession of operas and stage works – such as The End of the Affair, Moby Dick and Great Scott – songs and song cycles, chamber and choral works, and works for orchestra.
Heggie also enjoys a hugely successful partnership with librettist, songwriter and composer Gene Scheer – and together they have at least half a dozen works in their collective repertoire, including three of the four Heggie operas which have been staged by San Francisco Opera – Three Decembers, Moby Dick and now It’s a Wonderful Life – which TheatreJones describes as “Heggie’s most delightful concoction”. They have also been commissioned by Merola Opera Program (the first commission in its 62-year history) to create If I Were You, a full-length opera which is scheduled to receive its world premiere in San Francisco during summer 2019. Heggie says It’s a Wonderful Life is “…. about how you measure contentment and happiness in this precarious world”.
Tenor William Burden has previously appeared for San Francisco Opera in roles such as Laca in Janáček’s Jenůfa, Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Dan Hill in Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier and Peter in Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and created the role of George Bailey for the 2016 world premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera.
South African soprano Golda Schultz has already sung the roles of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Liù in Turandot, Musetta in La Bohème, Micaëla in Carmen, Freia in Das Rheingold, and Pamina in The Magic Flute. She adds her first performance with San Francisco Opera to other recent debuts – at the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera – and later in this season she will also appear with Zurich Opera for the first time. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown sings Clara in the December 9 performance.
Baritone Rod Gilfry created the role of the banker, Mr Potter, in the Houston Grand Opera premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life, having appeared with San Francisco Opera in roles which include Stanley Kowalski in the 1998 world premiere of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Faust in Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust in 2004.
In another debut performance for San Francisco Opera is Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, an alumna of the Merola Opera Program. She appears in another notable debut this season as Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Hamburg State Opera.
Also making first-time appearances with San Francisco Opera are tenor Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy Bailey, and baritone Joshua Hopkins as Harry Bailey. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook sings the role of Mother Bailey, and present San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Sarah Cambidge, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati and bass-baritone Christian Pursell appear as the Angel Quartet. The opera also features a pre-recording by actress Patti LuPone as A Voice.
Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera, conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) and cast in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life until December 9th. Sung in English with English supertitles, this is a co-commission and co-production between San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
As part of the Thanksgiving weekend matinee performance, San Francisco Opera’s Education Department hosts two interactive family workshops between 11.00 am and 12.30 pm, and San Francisco Opera hosts a Family Day celebration the same day, between 12.00 and 2.00 pm.
For more information on performances, tickets and the weekend celebrations, visit the San Francisco Opera website.
Information sourced from:
San Francisco Opera program notes
and artists’ websites: