World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016

California composer Jake Heggie’s new opera “It’s a Wonderful Life” was launched at the Houston Grand Opera. Heggie collaborated with librettist Gene Scheer, with whom he created “Moby Dick”, his most ambitious opera to date [See World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010],

Heggie and Scheer incorporated ideas from both the 1943 Philip van Doren Stern book The Greatest Gift and the well-known 1946 Frank Capra film after which the opera is named.

The opera differs from both the book and the movie. The opera focuses on the story of a wingless Guardian Angel Second Class, named Clara, who aspires to join the winged Angels First Class.

[Below: Second Class Angel Clara (Talise Trevigne, center left, without wings) seeks a promotion with the encouragement of four Angels First Class (angels with wings, from left to right, D’Ana Lombard, Yongzhao Yu, Zoie Reams and Ben Edquist); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Utilizing the portals that exist between heaven and earth to travel between them, Clara becomes deeply involved in the life of a despondent mortal, George Bailey, whom she persuades not to kill himself. Having successfully demonstrated to George that the world would be worse off without him, Clara earns her wings.

Talise Trevigne’s Angel Second Class Clara

American lyric soprano Talise Trevigne was an engaging Clara. Trevigne beautifully performed Heggie’s melodic vocal line composed for the opera’s celestial heroine.

[Soprano Talise Trevigne as Clara; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Trevigne is the artist who created the role of Pip in Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. Trevigne’s Pip was briefly  required to perform on wires above stage. Trevigne’s Clara, in contrast, spends much of the evening singing while suspended on wires.

[Below: at opera’s end Clara (Talise Trevigne, above) has received her wings for successfully performing the role of guardian angel for George Bailey (William Burden, center below, in overcoat) and his family; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


 William Burden’s George Bailey

Lyric tenor William Burden created the George Bailey role. One of American opera’s most vocally stylish and dramatically effective opera singers  [see American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden], he showed mastery of the physical and vocal challenges of the role.

Even though the plot’s focus shifts heavenward, it is the life of the human George Bailey whom the guardian angel Clara helps achieve victory over adversities.

[Below: George Bailey (William Burden, center) hugs his daughter Janie (C. J. Friend, bottom left) and son Tommy (Levi Smith, bottom right) as his daughter Zuzu (Elle Grace Graper, top right) watches; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Heggie and Scheer highlight major events in George Bailey’s life in a succession of musical episodes. The eldest son of the founder of the financially shaky Bailey Building and Loan Company, the self-sacrificing George devotes his life to his community’s needs.

Andrea Carroll’s Mary Hatch

Andrea Carroll’s luxurious lyric soprano was enlisted for Mary Hatch Bailey, the supportive wife with whom  George builds a family.

[Below: Andrea Carroll as Mary Hatch; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


An alumna of the HGO Studio Program, Carroll has distinguished herself in such youthful roles as Julie Jordan Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Convincing Case for “Carousel” – April 22, 2016 and Rosalba [A Florid, Flowing “Florencia” in Salt Lake City – Utah Opera, January 19, 2013.]

Rod Gilfry’s Mr Potter and Mr Gower

Baritone Rod Gilfry took on two roles that of the iconic miserly villain Mr Potter and of the distracted pharmacist Mr Gower (whose lethal mistake cost a young boy his life).

[Below: An unimpressed Mr Potter (Rod Gilfry, center, in wheelchair) hears the pleas of George Bailey (William Burden, right) to help him save his Bailey Building and Loan company as the guardian angel Clara (Talise Trevigne, center right) and Potter’s assistant (an HGO supernumerary) look on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


One of the several examples of luxury casting – always expected in a Heggie premiere – Gilfry was a formidable presence in both roles.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s Billy Bailey and Joshua Hopkins’ Harry Bailey

Another tenor of stellar reputation, Anthony Dean Griffey gave a sympathetic portrait of the forgetful uncle Billy, whose misplacing of $8000 nearly resulted in the family firm’s bankruptcy and nephew George’s suicide.

[Below: Anthony Dean Griffey, left, as Uncle Billy Bailey, William Burden, center, as George Bailey and Joshua Hopkins, right, as Brother Harry Bailey; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, another HGO Studio alumnus with a distinguished career [see Review: World Class Singing in Classic “Faust” – Fabiano, Martinez, Pisaroni, Hopkins at Houston Grand Opera, October 28, 2016], made much of the part of George’s advantaged younger brother Harry.

Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance

Five children were HGO debut artists. Stephen Thomas played Young George and Jack Townsend was Young Harry. C. J. Friend played both the young Mary Hatch, and her daughter, Janie. Elle Grace Graper was daughter Zuzu and Levi Smith was son Tommy (and Young Sam).

The four Angels First Class spent much of their time on wires in the air, weighted down with wings that reportedly weighed 45 pounds. All four are either alumni or present members of the HGO Studio artists.

D’Ana Lombard was the soprano Winged Angel. Her colleagues included Zoie Reams as the mezzo-soprano and Yongzhao Yu the tenor Winged Angels.

[Below: Guardian Angel Second Class Clara (center, top, without wings) stands guard over George Bailey (William Burden, center, bottom, in blue) as the Angels First Class (D’Ana Lombard, Zoie Reams, Yongzhao Yu and Ben Edquist) look on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Special recognition goes to baritone Ben Edquist, who stepped into the role of the fourth (baritone) Winged Angel on short notice and is scheduled for all performances.

Earlier this year, Edquist created the role of Edward Kynaston, the title role in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s “The Prince of Players” which also took place at the Houston Grand Opera [World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016.]

HGO Choristers Frankie Hickman and Heath Martin were, respectively, Mother Bailey and Ernie.

Patrick Summers, who has had a longstanding association with Heggie’s operatic works, conducted the Houston Grand Opera orchestra authoritatively.

The Production and Staging

Leonard Foglia, who also took part in the creation of “Moby Dick”, directed the complicated staging that took place sometimes in heaven, sometimes on earth and sometimes in both place simultaneously.

I have admired Robert Brill’s inventive sets for operas as diverse as “Wozzeck” [Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007] and “Cold Mountain” [World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015.]

[Below: Robert Brill’s sets and Brian Nason’s lighting for the scene in which the community chips in financially to save the Bailey’s company; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


To me, Brill’s sets, reflecting multiple portals between heaven and earth, overwhelmed the Cullen Stage, the smaller of the two Houston Wortham Center stages on which the Houston Grand Opera performs. I will be interested in how these sets appear (and are arranged) in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, when the opera, announced by the San Francisco Opera as part of its 2018-19 season, is shown there.

David C. Woolard designed the costumes. Brian Nason was the lighting designer. Elaine J. McCarthy created the projections. Andrew Harper was responsible for the sound design, which included sophisticated amplification. Choreographer Keturah Stickann invented the zany dance numbers.

[Below: George Bailey (William Burden, left) observes the dance steps of his fellow mortals; edited image based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


First Impressions and Recommendation

Heggie’s major operatic works differ markedly one from another .”It’s a Wonderful Life” is unlike the  intense drama of “Dead Man Walking”, the epic grandeur of “Moby Dick”, and the tongue-in-cheek satire of “Great Scott” [see World Premiere Review: Heggie’s “Great Scott” is a Great New Opera, Hilarious, Endearing, Sophisticated, Profound – The Dallas Opera, October 30, 2015.]

Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer and Leonard Foglia have created a “feel good” operatic work. At a time when such musical theater masterpieces as Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” have entered the performing repertories of opera companies (including Houston Grand Opera), I can imagine this work finding a home in musical theater venues.

Noting that the opera is not a literal adaptation of the famous movie of the same name, I recommend its flashy production and important cast of singing actors to both the aficionado and newcomer to contemporary opera.