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It’s a sneak preview of S.F. Opera’s ‘Wonderful Life’

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From left, Kearstin Piper Brown, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer sing “Auld Lang Syne” in a session to promote “It’s a Wonderful Life,” opening Nov. 17 at the War Memorial Opera House in The City. (Courtesy Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera)

San Francisco Opera offered a sneak peek this week of its upcoming new musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and it has an angel named Clara — not Clarence.

“The best way to honor the source is to do something fresh with it; you cannot put a movie onstage,” said San Francisco composer Jake Heggie, describing the West Coast premiere of the opera opening Nov. 17 based on Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy about a man, George Bailey, who wishes he were dead, only to discover the huge impact he has had on his friends and loved ones.

On Thursday at an informational session for students and reporters, Heggie was drawn to tears upon hearing soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, accompanied by pianist John Elam, perform a few of angel Clara’s passages from the show.

Heggie said he wrote the part of a female angel for vocal variety; he wanted a soprano (not a baritone) and a tenor for the main roles. And in this version, Clara, unlike Clarence in the film who mostly watches from afar, leads the audience along George’s journey of self-discovery, on a set that has doorways and portals.

Rehearsals have begun for San Francisco Opera’s production based on the 1946 movie classic. (Courtesy Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera)

Librettist Gene Scheer (who collaborated with Heggie on the 2013 opera “Moby Dick”) said his biggest challenge in writing the opera — a co-commission with Houston Grand Opera, where it premiered in 2016, and Indiana University — was to translate Capra’s “idiosyncratically cinematic” classic to the stage: “We’re in the business of allowing the music to be what the camera is to cinema. I believe in the power of the music to communicate these beautiful, hopeful, happy emotions.”

With its Christmastime setting, the opera unusually includes a sing-along (of “Auld Lang Syne”), said Heggie, who said its origin came from a suggestion by conductor Patrick Summers, artistic director of Houston Grand Opera, who was interested in creating a new holiday production as an alternative to “Nutcracker.”

“We wanted something with big emotions and universal themes, and we knew it wasn’t going to be Charlie Brown, the Grinch or Frosty the Snowman. This really is the story about the ripple effect of good deeds,” Heggie said.

IF YOU GO
It’s a Wonderful Life
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Nov. 20, Nov. 29, Dec. 1, Dec. 4 and Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Nov. 24, Nov. 25 and Dec. 9
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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