Dreams fulfilled or dreams denied: opera’s highest purpose and potential is surprisingly realized in composer Jake Heggie’s holiday offering. Regardless of the time of year, I wish every music listener and musician I know could experience It’s a Wonderful Life at San Francisco Opera. Although based on the beloved Frank Capra film, I didn’t know quite what to expect from a “family-friendly holiday” opera. I most certainly did not expect to be completely overwhelmed and moved to the point of tears, which flowed freely from a heart inexplicably opened by the sheer aching beauty of every sound uttered by South African soprano Golda Schultz (making her SF Opera debut), and from the universal, yet deeply personal resonance of the lyrics, so perfectly crafted by librettist Gene Scheer. Most importantly, I was moved by the music itself, the best work Heggie has thus far composed.

Andriana Chuchman (Mary Hatch), William Burden (George Bailey) and Keith Jameson (Uncle Billy) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Andriana Chuchman (Mary Hatch), William Burden (George Bailey) and Keith Jameson (Uncle Billy)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Leonard Foglia’s glorious production takes into account revisions made to the score since its 2016 premiere at Houston Grand Opera. A pre-performance interview with Mr Heggie was enjoyable and illuminating, as he discussed the reasons behind these revisions, based on both musical context and character development. But the details were only hinted at, left to be collaboratively experienced by the audience in a uniquely powerful way. The packed house was stunned into absolute, collective silence for several long minutes during a pivotal scene in Act 2, where the central character, George Bailey, briefly wishes he had never been born. Equating musical voice with life, Heggie suddenly stops all musical interaction. I was as impressed by the power and use of the extended absence of music, as I was by the staging, direction and inventiveness of this scene, particularly when George, having a change of heart, gradually “sings” himself back into existence, one halting note or phrase at a time, in response to equally tentative string sounds in the orchestra that urge him on from the pit, rejuvenating George’s hope and will to go on.

<i>It's a Wonderful Life</i> © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
It's a Wonderful Life
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Another memorable staging invention was the use of numerous magical doors to convey various memories, characters and locations, both past and present, without any sense of confusion. Easier to do in film, harder to do on stage, this production succeeded admirably and creatively in that regard, even with a couple of minor technical mishaps. The sets were stunning in their use of color and light to create both the mood and the sense of a deep vertical space between heaven and earth. Particular accolades to set designer Robert Brill, projection designer Elaine J McCarthy, and lighting designer Brian Nason for both envisioning and crafting exquisite scenes throughout the entire production.

William Burden (George Bailey) and Golda Schultz (Clara) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
William Burden (George Bailey) and Golda Schultz (Clara)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Houston Grand Opera’s music director Patrick Summers (who has conducted the premieres of all of Heggie’s operas) produced a wonderfully rhythmic yet sensitively drawn performance from the excellent San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This work requires the string section, in particular, to create endlessly flowing, rhythmically supple melodic lines that soar and struggle above fluctuating harmonies and changes of meter.

A few soloists failed to project in minor roles but the principal singers were truly stellar, from tenor William Burden (George Bailey) to Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy. Joshua Hopkins' rich, warm baritone made a great impression as Harry Bailey in his San Francisco Opera debut. A melodramatic “Greek chorus quartet” of sorts was formed by four “Angels First Class”, memorably sung. There were also several children very involved in the action on stage, and they all handled their roles with energy, discipline and natural confidence.

Golda Schultz (Clara) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Golda Schultz (Clara)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

At the conclusion of the opera, the full cast unite to sing beautifully-crafted lyrics that express the over-arching melody and message of this story: “No one is a failure who has friends”. The biggest ovations (most deservedly) were for composer Jake Heggie, who had brought this contemporary masterpiece and much-needed message into the world, and for the incredible soprano Golda Schultz (the angel, Clara) who is onstage, singing in golden-spun, dulcet tones for the entire opera. Her performance was a miracle of humor, compassion, emotional breadth and musical beauty. Her voice was emotionally piercing but musically gorgeous, always clear in diction and pitch, carrying to the farthest reaches of the hall and to the hearts within it. 

*****