All the holiday feels in SF Opera’s wonderful Life

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The company of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a San Francisco Opera production. Below: Golda Schultz is Clara, Angel Second Class (above, center) and William Burden is George Bailey (below, center) and Sarah Cambidge, Amitai Pati, Ashley Dixon and Christian Pursell are Angels First Class (meaning they have their wings). Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Not being an opera aficionado, I was interested in San Francisco Opera’s adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is the power of the original 1946 Frank Capra movie, a durable staple of the holiday season right up there with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The movie was turned into a musical by Joe Raposo and Sheldon Harnick in the 1980s, but its checkered history and mixed reviews have kept it from becoming a holiday hit (although the score’s one standout song, “Christmas Gifts,” is worth a listen: click here). So the prospect of the movie becoming an opera is a mightily intriguing one. After all, the story, about a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, is about as dark as it gets, and we all know opera thrives on thick, juicy darkness, right?

Then there’s the composer, San Francisco’s Jake Heggie, probably most famous for his adaptation of Dead Man Walking for the opera stage. Heggie is a straightforward composer who is serious about melody, character and storytelling – in other words, a good candidate for translating Capra’s movie to the stage (and before it was Capra’s movie, it was a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern).

It has long been my fervent wish that Heggie would take a few steps down from the opera stage and write a musical, and there are moments in It’s a Wonderful Life that make me wish for that even harder, moments that reveal a musical storyteller with the kind of broader appeal of a Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim.

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Those moments come when, in the story of George Bailey and how he ended up nearly taking his own life, the years go by and the U.S. enters World War II and then again at the end, when the notion of community and the essential importance of every individual life turns into a heartwarming, soul-stirring finale. There’s simplicity, beauty and power in these passages, and to my mind, the score could use a few more, but then again, I’m a musical theater nerd.

Heggie, working with librettist Gene Scheer, offers a sharp adaptation that doesn’t attempt to recreate the movie but rather builds its own window into the story, or, perhaps the better description is opens a different door into the story.

Set designer Robert Brill goes the abstract route, creating a stage full of doors, each one representing a day in the life of George Bailey. There are dangling disco globes (Christmas ornaments? Disco planets?) that give the set a space-age feel underscored by Brian Nason’s lights and especially by Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections.

Clarence, the doddering Angel Second Class from the movie, has become Clara, still an angel who has not yet earned her wings. She is played by the radiant Golda Schultz as a guardian angel who falls in love with humans in all their flawed glory. Before she can talk George off the bridge, she has to open all the doors of his life and see how he ended up in such a dark, dangerous place. (If the voice of God sounds familiar, it should: it’s the voice of actual god Patti LuPone.)

This makes Act One of this two-act, 2 1/2-hour show somewhat ponderous in its expositional attempt to zip through George’s childhood, his courtship with and marriage to Mary and the thwarted wanderlust that makes him feel stuck in and resentful of Bedford Falls. But it does give us a chance to get to know George, amiably played by William Burden, and his lot in life definitely improves with the addition of Mary, played by Andriana Chuchman, whose voice can easily be described as heavenly.

Things pick up in Act Two, and the section where Clara grants George’s wish that he was never born is appropriately eerie and devoid of any music. The opera, with its sincere performances and non-schmaltzy approach, definitely earns its happy ending, and even the grinchiest or Scroogiest among us would be hard pressed to resist the sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne” at the end. In other words, the opera, in its own way, gets you where you want to go in terms of existential crisis resulting in holiday cheer.

[bonus video]
Just for fun, here’s the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 movie.

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 9 in a San Francisco Opera production at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. tickets are $26-$398. Ca;; 415-864-3330 or visit

SF Symphony scales Bluebeard’s Castle

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Michelle DeYoung plays Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife in the San Francisco Symphony production of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Below: Bluebeard director Nick Hillel. Photos courtesy of SF Symphony

There are seven locked rooms in Duke Bluebeard’s castle, and Nick Hillel knows what’s in each one. From blood to torture to tears, the contents of the rooms were originally devised in French folklore and then formalized by the writer Béla Balázs for his friend, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, for the short opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. But it was up to Hillel, who helms a London-based digital media company called Yeast Culture, to bring those mysterious chambers into the 21st century.

Hillel is the director of an acclaimed new production of Duke Bluebeard, which had its premiere last October with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. After a tour through Europe, the production comes to Davies Symphony Hall for three performances by the San Francisco Symphony.

As conceived by Hillel, who has worked with artists as diverse as the Beastie Boys and Cirque du Soleil, Davies is transformed by a stage-engulfing set that is 24 feet high onto which he projects all sorts of wild video projections (the seats behind the orchestra are not in use for this performance). And hovering over the orchestra itself is what Hillel calls “the sails,” a sculptural origami-like structure that also provides projections surfaces as it unfolds over the course of the hour-long opera.

“I wanted the sails to mirror the character Judith’s journey,” Hillel explains in the sunny Davies lobby before a rehearsal. “She has just arrived at the castle of Duke Bluebeard, her new husband, and she wants to know what’s behind all the locked doors. The deeper she goes, the more is revealed and the more we see.”

Nick Hillel

Bluebeard’s American premiere was with the New World Symphony in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, who also conducts the San Francisco performances. But the Miami performances did not include the full set and full complement of six projectors that will be part of the San Francisco run.

In conceiving the production, Hillel, who was a fan of the 1918 opera, knew he wanted to delve into the subtext of the story – a wife unlocking all her new husband’s secrets, even as he pleads with her to simply love him and let the secrets lie – without overwhelming the music.

“I love a challenge, and the challenge here was not to be too literal with the story and not to overwhelm the music or overcrowd it with ideas,” he says. “I know that I have tremendous power as a video artist, and that power can outweigh what is right. I can ruin the experience by directing attention with a color or an image when attention should be on the emotion of a singer or passage of music being played by a certain instrument. I wanted to do some delicate work here with lighting and images.”

In keeping with his notion of not taking things too literally, Hillel worked with his team – most of which traveled with him to San Francisco – to create images that, even if they weren’t literal or specific to the story, evoked just the right emotion. He’s even using the orchestra itself to help set the mood.

“You have this huge, beautiful orchestra on stage, so you have use it,” he says. “For instance, there’s a recurring ‘blood’ theme in the score, and depending on which part of the orchestra is playing it, we light the musicians in red. It helps with the storytelling and moves the recurring themes forward.”

Described as “semi-staged,” the production could be better described as “almost staged.” If the orchestra weren’t on stage, you’d still have two actors – mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith and bass-baritone Alan Held as Bluebeard – in costume and inhabiting the towering castle set and its ever-changing projections. Talk about your hybrid projects – here you have an opera performed with an on-stage symphony orchestra with a set designed for a venue that’s not used to housing sets. As Hillel says, he likes a challenge.

“We tend to piss off the opera purists,” Hillel says with a laugh. “Some of them just don’t like the use of video. Some say we use too much, some say we don’t use enough. Some people love it; some people hate it. You can’t please everybody. If everybody liked it, it would probably be middle-of-the-road, and what’s interesting about that?”

In keeping with the unusual, adventurous spirit of Bluebeard, the Symphony is planning some special events. Laura Stanfield Prichard gives a pre-show take an hour before each performance (free to all ticket holders). And on Friday, June 22, things get really interesting with Davies After Hours, a post-concert music event featuring the Magik*Magik Orchestra with special guest John Vanderslice performing their musical response to Bluebeard. The event will also feature artwork curated in partnership with the Crucible in Oakland. The event is free to June 22 ticket holders.

[bonus video]
Nick Hillel, director of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle discusses his concept for the production.

The San Francisco Symphony’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 21, 22 and 23) at Davies Symphony Hall on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$145. Call 415-864-6000 or visit

A night at the opera with funny Freischütz

Opera’s not really my bag, but I had a fantastic time reviewing West Bay Opera’s Der Freischütz for the Palo Alto Weekly.

The short run ended today (Sunday, Feb. 28), but the review lives on forever. Read it here and please enjoy this photo from the production. Eric Coyne is Kuno, the head forester, and those are the masked townspeople behind him. (Photo by Otak Jump).