“Who are you? Who do you want to be?” The search for one’s identity is explored in American composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s brand new opera If I Were You, which received its world premiere at Herbst Theatre on Thursday August 1.

The opera marked a milestone for Merola Opera Program, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera training programs in the United States, as it represented their first-ever opera commission. In 61 years of training, the program has launched the careers of many international opera stars, and, with this opera, they broke a new ground by providing their 2019 Merolini a chance to create opera roles!

Heggie and Scheer are familiar faces in American opera world, as If I Were You were their fifth opera collaborations, followingThree Decembers (2008), Moby Dick (2010), Out of Darkness: Two Remain (2016, rev. 2018) and last November the absolutely amazing It’s a Wonderful Life. Heggie’s breakthrough first opera Dead Man Walking (with libretto by Terrence McNally), which has been seen in nearly 60 productions in five continents, will also enjoy its Metropolitan Opera premiere next season, in a new staging by Ivo van der Hove.

The story of If I Were Youwas loosely based on 1947 novel by Franco-American writer Julien Green titled Si j’étais vous. It revolved around Fabian Hart, an aspiring young writer (much like Green himself) looking for a way out of his stifling existence.

The Devil, Brittomara (in a nod to 2000 Beddazzled remake starring Elizabeth Hurley, even down to the brunette hair), offers Fabian a supernatural power to transfer his soul into another person’s body to live their life, as long as he never came back to his original body.

Thus begins the tale of If I Were You as Fabian moves his increasingly lost soul from person to person in search of a better identity, leaving a trail of human wreckage and hollow shells. At the core of his journey is his quest to be loved by Diana. When Diana finds  out who Fabian is and was ready to made a deal with Brittomara to save the wrecked souls (which included her best friend Selena), Fabian decides to stop pretending to be someone else and to return to his original self.

The advertisements for If I Were You marketed it as a contemporary take of a Faustian/Jekyll & Hyde myth with an element of magical realism, and there was a lot of truth in Scheer’s modern-day setting of Green’s story.

However, since Fabian moved from body to body (and embodied by multiple singers), the focus of the opera shifted to Brittomara and Diana, turning the opera closer into Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele and, surprisingly, Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid, itself a Faustian spin on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.

In the program, Heggie explains his motivation for selecting this particular story for Merola commission:

I was struck by the poignancy of trying to learn your place in the world when you’re starting out in your teens and 20s. Am I worthwhile? Loveable? Does my presence matter? In your 20s those are powerful questions. Which is why the Merola Opera Program is the perfect company for the work’s premiere. I would say their ages are between 23 and 34, with most of them falling in their upper 20s.

With such a lofty ambition, and aided with an excellent crew (more to this later), the opera delivered as a perfect showcase for the young Merolini, some with very sophisticated/big voices indeed. For the world premiere, If I Were You was double cast for the four principal roles (Fabian, Brittomara, Diana and Selena). I caught both the first night and the 8/3 performance in preparation for this review.

Heggie’s greatest talent, in my humble opinion, is his excellent writing for voices, and it showed in abundance in this opera. Vocal lines flew elegantly and easily. He understood the need to highlight the young singers’ voice (particularly of the principals) and he did that naturally, without sacrificing the story. (There weren’t any showstopping arias here.)

Heggie did include various singing styles, from patter songs to Wagnerian soaring melodies, to let the singers’ talents shine. He married those with a score of exceptional beauty. The musical language was fully engulfed in 20th century idiom, with echoes of George Gershwin’s and Darius Milhaud’s jazzy music.

His orchestration, as played by the 32-piece orchestra, sounded thick and layered and it varied, sometimes drastically, from scene to scene to further the story. While It’s a Wonderful Life introduced the audience to Fiji-inspired “Mekee-Mekee” music, here Mambo was the norm; it was even incorporated in Diana’s vocal line!

For all of its virtues, If I Were Yo uunfortunately also had a fair share of problems, some of them inherent in the story. Fabian’s body-shifting experience was done via chanting an ancient phrase palindrome “Rahu Candra Surya ayruS ardnaC uhaR” (FYI, in Sanskrit Rahu, Candra, Surya mean the Eclipse, the Moon and the Sun respectively).

That phrase was sung over an exotic (and chromatic) melody throughout the opera in largely unvaried form rather obsessively. Even worse was the use of the word “Hallelujah”. When Fabian first met Diana, she told him that if she survived a car crash like Fabian’s, she would be singing “Hallelujah”, and subsequently the word became Fabian’s remembrance of his love to her, even after he moved to the next body.

While the idea was a solid one, hearing the word sung nonstop by everybody on stage in every permutation diluted the importance of that moment for me, so when Fabian sang the last “Hallelujah” before he died, I couldn’t help but feeling relieved!

Another bewildering aspect of the opera for me was the motivation of Fabian to strike the deal with the Devil and the seemingly arbitrary choices of people Fabian decided to turn into.

Why did he decide to invade his boss, Mr. Putnam (the first transformation), a man that bullied him badly and that he hated? I meant, if you could be anybody in the world, wouldn’t you aim higher than your lowly boss? No wonder Fabian always sang “I thought it would be different!” after each move!

Nevertheless, the evening was brought to life particularly by the merry music-making of the conductor Nicole Paiement, the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Parallèle, which focused on performing contemporary works. Paiement let Heggie’s score shimmering with delight, and she particularly paid attention to shaping Heggie’s sometimes ragged rhythms to still achieving continuity.

I personally loved the way she treated the transformations as climaxes, with varied tempo and dynamics, making them especially memorable (she might be aware of the potential repetitiveness above). The Paul murder scene was truly edge-of-seat exciting and took my breath away! In the interesting interview below, she detailed her process of creating If I Were You, and it was truly illuminating.

In my review of West Edge Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande last year, I noted how director Keturah Stickann could achieve so much with so little resources that she had. I guess she made a career out of it, as once again it was proven true with this production.

Herbst Theatre didn’t have a deep stage (or a pit), but instead a rather tall one. Stickann and scenic designer Liliana Duque Piñeiro solved the problem by having a static set with Fabian’s car wreckage as the center piece, and everything else came up and down from the ceiling to denote various location; for example, for the bar scene, a white screen came in front of the wreckage with the bar sign, and a table was brought in with chairs. Simple, seamless, inventive, and extremely effective!

This excellent work was accentuated further with brilliant projection by Peter Torpey. I particularly loved that he used it sparingly, making the spiral of symbols shown during the chanting feel truly magical! You can sample this great production in the trailer released by Merola Opera Program below.

Costume designer Alina Bokovikov dressed the singers in modern clothes to go along with the contemporary feel and look of the opera. Interestingly, in Act 2, Brittomara, now true to her devilish self, changed to more exotic and colorful getup, complete with face-painting and headdress, bringing close resemblance to the sea witch Ursula from the aforementioned The Little Mermaid.

In fact, the confrontation scene between Brittomara and Diana at the car wreckage surrounding by Fabian’s hollow shells felt a lot like a homage to Ursula’s amazing number “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, arguably the best song from the movie!

Now we reached the most important point of the reviews, the singers. I am happy to report that both the Pearl Cast and the Emerald Cast were generally performing really well (some more successful than others obviously), without any weak links really. You could feel the excitement from everyone on stage to be part of this, and even the camaraderie shared among the Merolini. After all, opportunities like these didn’t come everyday.

Like the title role of Mefistofele, the Devil character Brittomara is very central to If I Were You. The role was a demanding one, requiring the singer pretty much on stage throughout the two-hours plus opera. (She sang the first and the last sentences in the opera!)

In addition, the shape-shifting nature of her makes it very difficult to bring out on stage; she has to be sexy, seductive, dangerous, sarcastic, even funny, sometimes in the same scene! On these performances, she was portrayed by mezzo-sopranos Cara Collins (Pearl Cast) and Brennan Blankenship (Emerald Cast).

Both singers were interviewed by the Chronicle prior to the performances and it was illuminating to hear how they each approached the character.

On opening night, Collins, with her large voice, navigated the demands of the Heggie’s writing with ease. I felt like she was most effective as the fast-talker hairdresser Brittni, and I would like to hear her take as Isabella from Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri.

Blankenship had a more lyrical voice, and she did get drowned a bit by the orchestra and the chorus during the climaxes, but she imbued her Brittomara with a sense of danger that was truly captivating and gave the opera its soul, so to speak. Her confrontation with Diana was very terrifying indeed.

The other essential character in the opera was surprisingly not Fabian, but instead Diana, the love interest. Diana was truly a plum role for sopranos here; she underwent a wide range of emotions before she ultimately became the symbol of purity and resolution, not unlike Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.

I found it interesting that Diana actually started the opera rather like Fabian, in search of her own identity, trying to be liked by the rouge Paul, etc. Personally, I wasn’t even sure whether she truly loved Fabian, or whether she was just trying to save her friends, particularly Selena.

Anyway, both Esther Tonea (Pearl) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Emerald) sang extremely well in this role, although they approached the role differently. MacIntosh’s Diana was a girl next door somewhat got caught up in the web of mess created by Fabian. Tonea added a child-like innocence in her singing and particularly in her acting, making her determination to save everyone in Act 2 and her subsequent sadness when Fabian died truly heartbreaking.

The nature of the story made Fabian a rather thankless role; he appeared only in the beginning of the opera, and towards the end. Michael Day in Pearl Cast made a rather stoic Fabian, heroic even. Just like his fellow Emerald Cast members, Nicholas Huffsounded more lyrical (He is listed as “Lyric Tenor” in Merola website, after all), and he peppered his singing with a couple of pianissimi that were very pleasing to hear.

The last of the dual cast role was Selena, Diana’s best friend that Fabian invaded second to last in the opera  Soprano Patricia Westley, which did a winning Elisa in last year’s Mozart’s Il re pastore, made a welcome return as Selena in Pearl Cast with her bright voice and gentle take on the role. Elisa Sunshine, with her darker voice, sounded more determined and authoritative in Emerald Cast.

The comprimario roles were all handled effectively as well. As David the photographer, Brandon Scott Russell made his presence felt with his booming voice. Baritone Timothy Murray filled the bad boy role of Paul with swagger, and, I must be honest, he looked hot being in just black boxer shorts almost throughout the opera!

Rafael Porto made an obnoxious Putnam and Edward Laurenson a commanding Jonathan. Chelsea Lehnea and Amber R. Monroe turned a sassy, dynamic duo; their harmonizing feature in the bar scene was fun to watch! Last but not least, Edith Grossmans eemed to have so much fun playing overbearing drunk Rachel!

This was truly a commendable moment for Merola Opera Program, and one that I felt should be cherished and celebrated, as evident by the lengthy applauses and standing ovations received on both performances I saw.

Photo Credit: Kristen Loken