A holiday classic, which began as a short story before it became the iconic 1946 Frank Capra film, makes its way to San Francisco Opera next week. It’s a Wonderful Life is by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, and having its West Coast premiere from the 17th through December 9th. George Bailey, sung by tenor William Burden (who created the role in the Houston Grand Opera world premiere) gets celestial assistance from Clara the angel (South African soprano Golda Schultz, making her first SFO appearance) on a pivotal Christmas Eve.
There’s more information at the San Francisco Opera website.
Many of the basic plot points are still there: George Bailey, who dreams of seeing the world, remains in his little town of Bedford Falls, not knowing how much he’s done to improve the lives of those around him. Considering suicide, he’s shown the world as it would be if he’d never been born. Approaching a work as well-known and loved as this meant leaving some of the familiar behind, Burden says. “I had to do business with not trying to take on Jimmy Stewart in any way, because there’s just no way to do that. It’s so iconic, and he is such an unbelievable performer. What I had to my advantage was Jake’s score, and Gene’s wonderful telling of the story. So I really could go right to the material, and play the character that they created for this stage production. And that has been the gift.” Burden says the film is a part of his family’s holiday ritual, but for Schultz, it’s was a bit more new. “It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a part of the ether in South African Christmas culture, but I’m a bit of a movie nut…I really think it’s a fabulous story, and to be foreign and to be a part of such an American story is just such a real real privilege, so I’m very excited. Even I, who don’t necessarily have White Christmases and all these wonderful things to hold onto as part of my culture, I can still lean into the story of someone needing hope when they’re at their lowest.” A tear-jerker plot can be difficult to sing, Schultz says: “I tend to let the emotion run wild in the rehearsal room. You try to move through it there and process yourself in that experience. And so, if you’re cracking on notes, and you’re crying, and you’re wiping snot away, it’s OK, because we’re all in the same boat together. Of course you’re going to get choked up. So I think all of us are kind of just… You know it’s coming, so you just prepare yourself as well as you can, and then hope that notes come out.”