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‘Two Remain’ Brings Opera Composer Back to O.C., Where His Career Took Off

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Jake Heggie hopes upcoming O.C. production with Lyric Opera finally completes a challenging project.

Diana Farrell, seated, portrays Kristina Zywulska in Lyric Opera of Orange County's upcoming production of "Two Remain." Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Orange County/Madi Nguyen

When the lights go up Saturday in the Huntington Beach Central Library’s theater for the final performance of a two-night presentation of the 2018 opera “Two Remain,” there will be at least one very attentive audience member: its composer, Jake Heggie. Like everyone else in the house, he’ll be watching the opera about two survivors of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the ghosts who haunt their memories. But he’ll also be looking to see the opera’s final character for the first time, and whether it conveys to him that an opera he has spent nearly 20 years working on is really finished.

It’s not that Heggie, arguably the world’s most successful living opera composer, is plagued by self-doubt. Two of the country’s leading opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Houston Grand Opera, opened their 2023-24 seasons with his work. The former staged his breakthrough 2000 opera “Dead Man Walking” last month and the latter is closing his latest world premiere, a Civil War espionage thriller, “Intelligence,” the night before he’ll be in Orange County.

But the Lyric Opera of Orange County production will be the first time Heggie will see “Two Remain” play in front of a live audience. And to him, a sense of finality in this most demanding of theatrical art forms comes only when the demands the audience places, and those that are put on it, are satisfied.

“The audience is the final character to arrive at an opera,” Heggie writes via email. “(As creators) we think we know what we’ve got, but until the audience is there, the circle is incomplete – and that's when we really learn whether our vision is working or not. So when the audience arrives, the bar is raised even further ... and the theater demands the audience show up and be attentive – it demands something of all those people, too. And when it all clicks, it's total magic.”

“Two Remain” premiered to enthusiastic reviews at the Atlanta Opera in 2018 and has been staged at multiple venues since, so it’s a good bet that on Saturday, Heggie will know it’s finished. But he’s catching a flight after his Houston opera closes just to make sure.

“I just haven’t had a chance to visit” an actual production, says Heggie, now on the phone, of not seeing “Two Remain.” “My librettist (Gene Scheer) has seen it and feels the chapter is complete, but I haven’t, so I’m very grateful for this company staging this and for my being able to fly out after my final performance in Houston.”

Michael O'Halloran as Manfred Lewyn, left, and Phil Meyer as Gad Beck in Lyric Opera of Orange County's upcoming production of "Two Remain." Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Orange County/Madi Nguyen
Orange County Connection Part II

It won’t be the first time Heggie has felt grateful for an OC company staging one of his operas. Orange Country will always have a spot in Heggie’s heart. He credits some of the success of “Dead Man Walking,” which is the most produced new opera by an American composer this century, to a 2002 Costa Mesa production mounted by the now defunct Opera Pacific at the since-renamed Orange County Performing Arts Center. The opera, which Heggie began working on in 1996 with librettist Terrence McNally, was based on the 1993 nonfiction book written by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, about her ministry to Death Row inmates that inspired the 1995 Academy Award-winning film.

It premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000 and was a runaway hit. The production was booked in New York in late 2002, which would have been its second mounting, but Opera Pacific was part of a consortium of seven smaller companies that committed to staging a downsized version and “took the lead and became the second company to produce it,” Heggie said.

That production proved the opera could attract an audience outside of a major opera power center, something Heggie said was key to the future success of "Dead Man Walking,” which has been produced more than 75 times and on five continents.

The Accidental Opera Composer

It was also key to Heggie’s phenomenal success in a musical genre that he never thought he’d be a part of. Opera was a foreign language to Heggie while growing up in Ohio. He knew next to nothing about it. Even though he began writing music shortly after his father’s suicide, when Heggie was 11, and majored in composition at UCLA, he wasn’t writing opera.

“I started writing musical theater as a teenager,” Heggie said, “and then thought I would write art songs or song cycles, but when I was at school, even UCLA, traditional opera wasn’t even mentioned in your composition classes. It just wasn’t a viable career track. There were a couple of new operas now and again by Philip Glass and John Adams. But they were outliers. At least from what I knew. I never considered writing one.”

It was only after he lost the ability to play piano for five years due to a neurological disorder in his right hand, a move from L.A. to San Francisco in 1993, and landing a job in the public relations department of the San Francisco Opera that the opera education of Jake Heggie would commence.

“PR was the perfect apprenticeship for an aspiring opera composer, even though I didn’t know that’s what I was at first,” Heggie said. “But here I was, surrounded by the greatest singers in the world, and talking to directors and conductors, managers, agents, the press, radio people, TV people, donors, orchestra musicians, front of house staff. I was working with all these people telling their stories and getting them out to the public and learning about every aspect of the business.”

About a year into the gig, Heggie started regaining control over his hand and began composing art songs for some of the leading divas of the day, including Frederica Von Stade. That was when he caught the break of a lifetime: Lofti Mansouri, then the general director of San Francisco Opera, asked Heggie at a cocktail party if he’d ever considered writing an opera. The next day Heggie was called into his office and was told there was an opening in the 2000 season and he was being sent to New York to talk to McNally about a possible collaboration, which turned out to be the phenomenally successful “Dead Man Walking.”

Phil Meyer as Gad Beck, left, and Michael O'Halloran as Manfred Lewyn in Lyric Opera of Orange County's upcoming production of "Two Remain." Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Orange County/Madi Nguyen
A Small Opera 20 Years in the Making

Heggie has written 10 full-length operas, numerous one-act operas, more than 300 art songs and chamber music, choral and orchestral works. He’s written big operas (“Moby Dick,” 2010), operas based on endearing classic films (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” 2016), socially relevant pieces (“Songs for Murdered Sisters,” a collaboration with Margaret Atwood about gender-based violence) and is unabashed about embracing non-traditional opera music in his work, including elements of musical theater and film scoring.

But in everything he does, working with the librettist to craft a story is paramount, and he says he is most drawn to telling the stories of those who have been silenced or overlooked. That manifests most overtly in “Two Remain,” a chamber opera that calls for only six musicians but that Heggie began working on nearly 20 years ago.

It began in 2005, when he was commissioned by Music of Remembrance to write about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. In 2012, he received another commission to write something based on the life of Polish dissident and Holocaust survivor Krystyna Zywulska. Next came a song cycle based on lyrics Zywulska wrote while a prisoner at Auschwitz.

Heggie and Scheer then began combining all three into a full-length opera, which debuted in 2016 as “Out of Darkness.”

But the piece needed work and the pair spent the next two years honing it for its 2018 Atlanta premiere, which now had a new name: “Two Remain.” The two in the title refers to the characters whose stories are told in the opera’s two 45-minute acts. Act one, it’s Zywulska’s story of surviving Auschwitz by successfully concealing her Jewish identity. She’s recounted it many times since writing her autobiography in 1946; now pushing 80, she’s telling it once again for yet another book someone wants to write about her.

But this time she’s struggling to find the words, even as ghosts of childhood friends who were transported to the camp with her but who died in it, encourage her to tell the story – but this time tell all of it.

It’s what she’s left out of her story that is Zywulska’s conflict; in act two, it’s the absence of a story that haunts Gad Beck. Beck survived Auschwitz, but his lover, a 19-year-old poet named Manfred who was sent there on suspicion of being gay, didn’t. For 50 years, Beck has tried to forget everything about that period in his life, except for keeping his lover’s journal. But tonight, he’s got his lover’s ghost in his apartment demanding that at the very least, Beck remembers the purity of their love.

Diana Farrell, standing, portrays Kristina Zywulska in Lyric Opera of Orange County's upcoming production of "Two Remain." Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Orange County/Madi Nguyen
Bold Artistic Move by Lyric Opera of Orange County

There is another Opera Pacific connection to this production. The company producing it, Lyric Opera of Orange County, was launched seven years ago in large part to help fill the void left by the OP’s closing in 2008 after 47 years. In January, it produced “Two Remain” at the Yost Theatre in Santa Ana.

It was a bold artistic choice for the small company which started with $300 and has grown slowly but steadily.

“It was something different for us,” said Diana Farrell, the company’s president and artistic director. “It was a new musical, heavier, and more professional.”

Ordinarily, the company wouldn't book the same show two seasons in a row, but during rehearsals for the show earlier this year, the organizers of California Festival asked if the company would like to participate in its inaugural initiative, a two-week celebration of new music in which 100 arts organizations across the state will present more than 180 compositions written in the past five years.

“It wasn't really part of the plan, but mounting any opera is always a huge undertaking and it’s even more difficult to stage a new one that has to be conceptualized without a recording to go off of,” Farrell said. “But since we had so many of the folks who had already done it once, we absolutely could do it again.”

It certainly wasn’t chosen because it was easy. Although the show is very listenable, it draws on a wide array of musical and vocal stylings as varied as jazz, American minimalism, Jewish folk songs and classical composers from Rachmaninoff to Chopin.

But while challenging for singers and musicians, it falls easily on the ears.

“He is so good at taking all these pieces that you wouldn’t think would work together, and weaving them seamlessly with his own writing to create something new,” Farrell said. “Sometimes it may sound like a traditional opera, then like musical theater, or jazz. But it’s always so accessible.”

But the story is what drew Farrell.

“The story is so relevant, whether in relation to the Holocaust or people dealing and coping with the aftermath of being identified as the other and being singled out in their community out of fear or political gain,” she said. “And it’s strange that the story itself is not even 100 years old but to so many people it feels like ancient history. But you see it in the news every week, sometimes in countries very far from us, sometimes in our backyard.”

Farrell’s hope with this second production is that it will raise her company’s profile further and that “people walk away proud that something like this is in Orange County and they now know they have access to opera that is affordable, relevant and intimate … and that these are all professionals from their community putting this on.”

And her hope for Saturday’s guest of honor?

“I hope it lives up to his expectations … but more than anything I hope he is moved to see what his work becomes off the page and maybe allows himself the luxury of being caught up in the stories once more.”

And Heggie’s?

“I hope audience members are surprised and a little moved,” he said, “and walk away energized and maybe even inspired by a wonderful story that might change their perspective about another human being.”

And that’s the kind of work that Heggie hopes is never finished.

‘Two Remain’

Where: Huntington Beach Central Library Theatre, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 3 and 4

Cost: $27-$50



Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.


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