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Merola commissions new work on 60th anniversary

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Jake Heggie, left, and Gene Scheer have been commissioned to write a new piece for Merola Opera Program. (Courtesy Robert Hart Photography)

San Francisco composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer are embarking on what seems like an impossible mission: writing a two-act opera based on Julien Green’s 1947 Faustian fantasy, “If I Were You.”

“You cannot put a novel on the stage,” said Heggie last week when San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program — the country’s oldest, largest opera training program — announced its first ever commission (to premiere in 2019) and its upcoming 60th anniversary season.

To get around what separates the page and performance, Heggie first falls in love with a book, rereads and internalizes it, is possessed by it, and then, forgets it: “Honor the source, but do something fresh,” he said.

Heggie, composer of San Francisco Opera’s acclaimed “Moby-Dick” (based on the knotty Herman Melville book), said, “‘If I Were You’ demands invention, an exciting sound world all its own, a sense of poetry and range of characters that are very clear but surprising.”

It’s the ideal project for Heggie and Scheer (his librettist for “Moby-Dick” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Three Decembers,” and “Out of Darkness,” a tryptich of Holocaust stories), who were looking for a project that would push them in new directions.

“If I Were You,” in which the devil enables a young man to transfer his soul into other people’s bodies, is about “a quest for your place in the world,” Heggie said, noting that the opera will have at least six major roles in addition to the hero — and the devil will be a “beautiful soprano.”

He adds, “Our plan is to write an opera that can be performed by a professional company, but is especially suited to the skills and gifts that young artists in the Merola Opera Program will bring to the stage. They will need to be especially adept singing actors, eager to push their own boundaries to create something quite new.”

He adds, “I’m deeply grateful to the Merola Opera Program for bravely encouraging me and Gene to think big for their young artists. It’s opera, after all, and the mantra remains “Go big or go home!’”

Heggie, 55, started his association with San Francisco Opera in 1994 as a writer in the public relations department. His friendship with mezzo Frederica von Stade and support from Lofti Mansouri, then the company’s general director, helped him occupy a new position, composer-in-residence.

After the success of his first opera “Dead Man Walking,” he launched an acclaimed international career, but has maintained his San Francisco connections, especially with young Merola artists, including some who have become stars on world stages.

The 2017 Merola Opera Program, running June 5 to Aug. 19, offers training for 23 singers, five apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director.

Performances, which begin with an opening gala in June, also include a triple bill (of Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona,” Holst’s “Savitri” and Walton’s “The Bear”) on July 20 and July 22; Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” on Aug. 3 and Aug. 5; Schwabacher Summer Concerts on July 6 and July 9 and the grand finale on Aug. 19.

Merola 60th Anniversary Gala and Concert
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 11
Tickets: $60 (concert), $600 and up (gala)
Contact: (415) 936-2324, www.merola.org

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