Some Kind of Wonderful

The San Francisco Opera stages Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, all without re-creating Bedford Falls, N.Y.

Joshua Hopkins as Harry Bailey, William Burden as George Bailey, and Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“I can’t imagine being an opera singer,” composer Jake Heggie says. “I don’t know a harder job. You’re totally barenaked up there: It’s just you, your vocal chords, and your body. You’re the instrument.”

He’s specifically referring to the miasma that’s been hovering above the Bay Area these last two weeks, an unfortunate byproduct of the deadly Camp Fire that incinerated the town of Paradise and the Sierra foothills. But the difficulty of the job relates to more than just prevailing atmospheric conditions, of course.

“Think about it,” Heggie says. “You’ve got the director telling you to move this way. You’ve got the costume person telling you, ‘Oh, you’re put on some weight.’ And this person telling you, ‘It’s sounding a little tense and tight tonight.’ Maybe another colleague is off, and they’re not singing at the right place and you have to stay on top of it — an be convincing, and be in the moment. I honestly don’t know how they do it.”

In addition to having “vocal chords like tungsten” — Heggie’s vivid phrasing — contemporary opera singers, and American singers in particular, have to demonstrate a greater versatility than their predecessors needed. They get asked more than ever, Heggie says, and they’ve been taught from early on that to enjoy a successful career, they must have classic baroque arias in their book right along with the standard repertory from the 19th century and something recent. Musical theater selections are good, not only because many young singers arrived at opera via their love of that medium, but because many companies stage crossover productions.

And that’s what the San Francisco Opera has done with It’s a Wonderful Life (through Dec. 9). Looked at one way, Frank Capra’s 1946 comedy-drama-fantasia would seem almost too on-the-nose. The film, while somewhat dark as holiday entertainment goes and generally not considered a success at the time of its release, has churned through the decades to acquire a patina of old-timey wholesomeness. But in the hands of Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, and director Leonard Foglia, the source material — technically an adaptation in its own right, of Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” — has gotten something of an update.

Heggie, who’s written operatic adaptations of classics like Moby-Dick and Dead Man Walking (with a libretto by none other than Terrence McNally), has a predilection for stories set around the holidays, having written the opera Three Decembers and “a couple of song cycles set around that time.” The theme of redemption is universal, he says, and that puts It’s a Wonderful Life firmly in the camp of other great operas, most of which spun classical legends about gods or kings and queens into highly emotive song.

“The angel in the movie is Clarence. Here, it’s Clara,” Heggie says. “And their big dilemma is that they want to help, but how do they help? … It’s universal in scope because it deals with human themes — and tells them through an American lens.”

The transposition of angelic gender isn’t a politically correct move; it’s because Heggie et al. didn’t want to hear a tenor and a baritone all evening. Vocal casting is everything, he says. Besides, “the best way to honor a source is to be inspired by it and do something different,” Heggie says, adding, “We didn’t just want to take the movie and put in on stage. It would be a disaster.”

Rather than re-create the entire town of Bedford Falls, N.Y., Scheer concocted various devices that propel the narrative along, such as a “magical attic of doors” that Clara opens, revealing scenes from various points in George Bailey’s life. She’d been floating in the heavens, on a tree swing, for 200 years, “tuned into this frequency” — as Heggie puts it — and waiting for her true calling. There’s a magic hat that allows her to stop time, and a vaguely Fijian dance that Scheer invented, based on the travel magazines that George reads while fantasizing about broader horizons.

It’s a Wonderful Life has undergone substantial revisions since premiering at Indiana University Bloomington, with the team having trimmed 15 percent of its length and cut an entire character. They also added duets and expanded two of the arias. Considering the complex instrumentation and the number of players on stage, axing a single measure can become a complicated surgical endeavor. Down to the beat, everything must advance the narrative emotionally, such as an aria where the future Mary Bailey now expresses a greater level of vulnerability.

“There was no emotional payoff, and now there is,” Heggie says. “Those are thing you don’t know until you hear them on stage, so Gene had to write new lyrics that fit and give us more information, so that it’s just not gratuitous. We’re learning about what they dream of life, so that there’s a real purpose to them.

“You want clarity,” he adds, “and I owe this phrase to Stephen Sondheim: ‘You want a sense of inevitability that is still surprising along the way.’ It takes a lot of tries.”

It’s a Wonderful Lifenine performances through Sunday, Dec. 9, at SF Opera, $26-$360, 415- 621-4403 or sfopera.com

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