How ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Became an Opera
Composer Jake Heggie has turned the classic Christmas movie, about desperate George Bailey and Clarence the angel, into an opera—inspired by his own father’s suicide.
But nothing has quite the popular resonance of It’s A Wonderful Life.
“One of the things you’re always looking for with a new opera is some sense of familiarity so that people can be open to the musical telling of the story rather than trying to figure out everything that’s going on,” said composer Jake Heggie, who is currently in rehearsals for his opera version of Frank Capra’s 1946 perennial holiday staple, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera.
The opera premieres in Houston on December 2nd.
“Historically, opera started off with myths, legends, famous stories where everyone knew what was happening, and they could be open to the magical telling of this,” Heggie told the Daily Beast. “You don’t really have to go into what is that story when you mention It’s A Wonderful Life… It’s an iconic title, and people have the sense of it. It’s got all the elements of opera, and it is about larger forces that seem beyond your control.”
Heggie is one of the most acclaimed and performed American contemporary opera composers of our time.
He is the composer of more than nine operas and his opera version of Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking has had nearly 50 productions across the world since its premiere at San Francisco opera in 2000. His highly acclaimed opera version of Moby Dick premiered in Dallas in 2010, and was again staged by the Dallas Opera this year after being produced in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Houston Grand Opera approached Heggie soon after the premiere of Moby Dick; they were interested in a holiday opera, something that could play in a smaller venue while the ballet was doing the Nutcracker in the main auditorium over the holidays. Several ideas were batted around including A Christmas Carol and, less seriously, Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, but Heggie finally settled on It’s A Wonderful Life.
Frank Capra’s film version of It’s A Wonderful Life was based upon the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern.
After the title rights were secured from Paramount—amazingly the script itself is in public domain—Heggie brought in librettist Gene Scheer with whom he had worked on Moby Dick and a number of other projects.
As most of the English speaking world knows, It’s A Wonderful Life hinges on Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, reaching a point of complete desperation and contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. He believes his wife, children, and community would be better off without him.
At that moment, his Guardian Angel 2nd class, Clarence, intervenes by throwing himself off the bridge and forcing George to jump in and save him. While drying off after rescuing him, George off-handedly says to Clarence, “I wish I’d never been born.” Clarence grants this wish and George is forced to experience what his world would have been like if he had never been born, and it is a very dark experience. George realizes that he in fact has a wonderful life.
“At its heart, It’s A Wonderful Life is deeply operatic,” said Heggie. “It’s about a man thinking about ending his life. He’s going to jump off a bridge and leave his family behind and his entire community, because he doesn’t know how he belongs. He doesn’t know how he fits, and he thinks he’s let everyone down. It’s a story that could place any time during the year, but it’s particularly set at Christmas, because it makes it even more tragic that he would think of doing this at that time.”
At one point towards the end of the film Clarence says to George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
The story has a lot of personal resonance for Heggie. His own father, John Francis Heggie, committed suicide when Heggie was ten years old.
In 1972, Heggie’s father, a physician training to be a psychiatrist, drove from their home in Columbus to a farm in southern Ohio, bought a gun and shot himself. Three days later Heggie’s mother, Judy, had to tell him and his three siblings.
“He suffered from crushing depression,” Heggie said. “They kept it hidden from us. I had no idea. He had been in therapy I guess and my mother was downstairs talking with the therapist and we were upstairs being entertained by a friend of hers. She had to come up and tell us. It was a very dark night.
All she could say, as far as I remember, was that, ‘Daddy was very sick, he was very sad, and there was no way I could have stopped him. He was determined to do this. It’s not because of you, it’s because of the sickness.’ Which is hard to explain because he didn’t look sick or seem sick to us.”
Heggie’s father had been in therapy for years, including shock treatment, but that all was hidden from the children. There had been a possible attempt a couple of years earlier when he crashed his car into a tree and was hospitalized. But that too was hidden and described as an “accident” to the children. So the shock for the children was absolute and life altering.
“I remember asking my mother why? You have four little kids. She’s 39. My dad was 42. What other question can you ask? Why? What happened? Why? As a kid you don’t understand depression. You don’t understand why someone would leave you in that regard. They’re there to protect you. All of a sudden you don’t feel safe. There’s this big question mark hanging over your head for the rest of your life.
“When you’re ten years old and a parent does that, there is literally emotional shrapnel everywhere, and you look for a safe place to hide. I had music. As a ten-year-old, all you’re thinking is, ‘I wasn’t important enough.’ I was abandoned.
“That was the emotional baggage that I carried all my life. ‘Why didn’t you stay for me? Why did you leave me?’ Even though, for an adult, of course I went through all the therapy and everything, but those tapes don’t stop playing. Those formative years are pretty indelible.”
Heggie’s childhood experience greatly informed his creative process for It’s A Wonderful Life. Heggie explained to The Daily Beast, “Although my father’s dilemma and George Bailey’s dilemma are very, very different, I had to get into my own father’s head and think what would take someone from the cradle of their family, especially with young children at home that they’re responsible for, and make them think that everyone would be better off if they weren’t on the planet.”
It was through his music that Heggie finally began to heal as well, though it took decades. Last year, during a rehearsal for Great Scott, Heggie’s last opera which premiered in October 2015 at Dallas Opera, he had a revelation.
“It was all of a sudden this wave of forgiveness that was just so powerful. I had to leave the room, because I was just weeping. All of a sudden, I realized I’m feeling forgiveness. I feel like I’m starting to turn off that stupid tape… It was I suddenly had a new open space, but it took me that long.”
While understanding first hand that it can take decades to begin to fully heal, Heggie wants survivors of victims of suicide and mental illness to know they should not feel shame, nor are they alone in their grief.
“It’s not something I’m ashamed of, and it’s not something I feel that I should hide. There are a lot of people out there who feel isolated because of something that happened in their family through mental illness. You’re not alone. There’s an enormous number of people who have gone through it or feel the same way or are dealing with the emotional wreckage that that creates, and we need to be there for each other.”
That led Heggie to reflect on Donald Trump’s recent presidential election victory. “It’s A Wonderful Life is a timeless story about community and the individual feeling like the outsider. You've made a huge difference by being in the community and participating and, yeah, it’s definitely a story of our time.
“This feels like a very dark period. Nothing has changed outside. The sun is still shining and there’s still leaves and leaf blowers and there’s little kids running around. But it feels like something fundamentally shifted.
“I’m figuring out how to move forward and channel the grief that I feel into something positive. Having this work at hand right now is the best thing possible. To be able to bury yourself in productive work with wonderful colleagues on a project that has a very important message: what more could you hope for?”
It’s A Wonderful Life premieres at Houston Grand Opera on December 2nd. See here for more information and tickets.