Composer Jake Heggie celebrates vocalists with ‘Sing LOUDER’ podcast

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

What does a leading American composer do during a pandemic, besides write music?

In the case of Jake Heggie – who’s admired around the world for operas such as “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick” – the answer is obvious: produce a podcast.

Though Heggie and colleagues conceived “Sing LOUDER” in the summer of 2019, before the word “coronavirus” had become ubiquitous, most of the production occurred during the pandemic, with the series launching last month. Heggie interviews a different singer in each episode, his conversations with singular vocalists such as J’Nai Bridges, Sasha Cooke and Ryan Speedo Green transcending the usual Q-and-A format.

Instead, Heggie – who tells me “I’ve spent my life adoring singers” – achieves remarkably candid dialogues with his subjects.

Mezzo-soprano Cooke, for instance, discusses the time she threw up during a performance, illuminates her mortification at that turn of events and explains her determination to go on with the show.

Cooke and other guests also speak frankly about their struggles to achieve a place onstage, and the challenges of holding onto it at a time when virtually all live performances have been canceled.

In effect, we listeners feel as if we’re eavesdropping on a dialogue between friends, rather than sitting through another celebrity interview.

Why are the singers revealing themselves?

“Partly they’re telling me because no one has asked,” says Heggie. “Everyone has a story to tell and share. … I know singers really well. I know how to talk to them. I like them enormously. They feel safe to reveal their stories about triumphs and failures.”

Certainly their time with Heggie takes us inside the somewhat rarefied world of operatic singing.

“When I was young, I was picked on all the time,” Cooke tells Heggie. "It’s even hard to find one memory, because it was normal. I mean, the first one that came to mind was being on the bus, and some kid calling me some name, and then putting his feet on my backpack and then throwing gum in my hair. Which I remember being awful, because I had to cut out the gum from my hair, and I walked back crying. …

“I think that when you grow up as a chubby kid, and you’re picked on a lot, you really desperately want to be accepted and liked," Cooke continues. "Because so much of the time you’re trying to disappear, and you’re afraid of being made fun of. And so music was not that. You couldn’t criticize me for being chubby, because it wasn’t about how I looked. It was about how I sounded, and the work I put in. And onstage I felt instantly beautiful.”

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges tells Heggie of a moment that made her realize she belonged on the operatic stage.

“In 2008, I’ll never forget, I saw ‘Salome,’ and I just remembered being so transfixed by the production,” Bridges says in their conversation. “And also it was the first time that I saw an African American performing onstage (in an opera). And that was Morris Robinson, who is a bass. And I just remember being so inspired by him, and the sound and his presence and the fact that he was Black. It just really spoke to me differently. In that moment, it was like: Wow, this is so amazing, and I want to do this. I really want to make it happen.”

Heggie whimsically asks tenor Brandon Jovanovich: “If your voice were a person, how would you describe your relationship?”

Jovanovich is startled by the question but doesn’t shy from answering it.

“Oh my gosh, wow, oh boy,” Jovanovich says at first. “I’d say it would be this love-hate thing. We’d be best friends. But at the same time, we’d need some counseling sessions thrown in.”

You never know which way the conversation is going to turn in these podcasts, which is half the fun.

But on a deeper level, Heggie seems intent on taking us behind the curtain and into the reality – the pleasures and perils – of being an opera singer. Each of the episodes I heard, for example, included an excerpt of the singer doing vocal exercises, as if to remind listeners of the sweat and ache that makes the stage magic possible.

The idea, says Heggie, is "to get back to what they need to do just to keep this motor running. I don’t think most people have ever heard a singer warm up. They have to make funny noises sometimes.

“But it’s also amazing to me what they go through just to keep it flexible and open and awake. If their voice isn’t awake, they can’t wake other people up. And all of it is about waking people up – that’s what opera is about.”

When Heggie and colleagues began production on “Sing LOUDER,” he had the luxury of interviewing Cooke in person. Then the pandemic struck, and he found himself forced to do the rest of the series remotely.

“I was in my house, they were in their house, and we were hanging drapes and shipping microphones back and forth,” says Heggie.

But rather than ignore the restrictions everyone is facing, “Sing LOUDER” spotlighted them, going back to do a follow-up interview with Cooke to see how she’s faring during the pandemic. In that episode she sounds as distressed by our current situation as everyone else and speaks directly about it.

After Heggie asks her how she’s doing, she replies: “Well, up and down. It feels like a totally different world than when we last spoke. I’ve never been so vocally rested, that’s for sure. … At the same time, sometimes I’ve gone to the piano and just started crying or just felt too low to really practice, which is a very foreign feeling. I’ve had a lot of foreign feelings in the last several months.”

Heggie also brings up protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have roiled the country. In so doing, he makes it clear that he views opera not as an ivory tower endeavor removed from the rest of the world but one that needs to be an integral part of it.

“That was very much a decision to keep it in the now,” says Heggie. “We are dealing with a time like no other. When we started this (podcast), we had no idea what was coming, of course. Once it did, we realized we needed to dive in and recognize where singers are in this moment.”

Along these lines, mezzo-soprano Bridges talks about how Black music is at the core of her artistic identity.

“Spirituals have a very special place,” she tells Heggie. “I grew up singing in the church choir. And the denomination that I grew up with is A.M.E. – African Methodist Episcopal. And we sing a lot of hymns and spirituals. I feel like I’m able to sing spirituals in a way that is really most authentic to who I am. And I’ve actually thought about: Can I sing opera the way I sing spirituals? And I would like to.”

For Heggie, “Sing LOUDER” stands as a way of welcoming everyone into the operatic world of which he is a significant part. With most episodes running about 20 minutes, they’re easily digestible, accessible and unencumbered by operatic jargon. Anyone can savor what is being said. The singers also bring musical excerpts, enabling listeners to judge for themselves the character of the vocalists’ art.

Why is Heggie going to all this trouble?

“I grew up in a time when singers were embedded in the popular culture,” says the composer, 59. "And we’ve all watched that disappear, where you had Marilyn Horne on ‘The Muppets’ and all these great singers on all these different shows. And little by little, that winnowed away.

"I’ve always been a champion of singers, and it may amount to nothing, but I want to do something. What they do is so courageous and brave, it’s breathtaking to me.

“Everyone can understand finding your voice,” adds Heggie, who’s working with librettist Gene Scheer on “Intelligence” for Houston Grand Opera and recently composed “Songs for Murdered Sisters” to new poems by Margaret Atwood.

“But finding your voice, and finding out it is this voice! A lot of singers would rather be doing pop or Broadway, but their voice leads them to opera, and they devote their lives to it, and everything has to be about that. I wanted that story to be heard.”

As for why the podcast is titled “Sing LOUDER,” there are two meanings at play.

“We all know what it is to sing, but an opera singer has to learn to sing louder than anyone else,” explains Heggie of an art form in which singers are not amplified. "It’s a combination of volume and intensity.

“But it’s also about raising your voice, being heard as a human and as an artist.”

Both radiate throughout “Sing LOUDER.”

To tune in, visit https://jakeheggie.com/podcast/

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

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