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Bienen School presents Midwest premiere of Jake Heggie opera

Russell Thomas Master Class and chorale concert of Heggie repertoire round out winter vocal offerings

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Jake Heggie coaching Bienen students during master class (2017). Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

American composer Jake Heggie’s Faustian opera “If I Were You” will make its Midwest debut in Northwestern University Opera Theater’s Feb. 24-27 production at Cahn Auditorium.

The opera continues a productive association between the Bienen School of Music and the pianist-composer that began with the Chicago-area premiere of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” in 2015, followed by a vocal master class and convocation keynote address in 2017.

“The Bienen School of Music was honored by Jake Heggie’s invitation to present ‘If I Were You’ at Northwestern,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School of Music. “This opera is an ideal work for our voice students since it was written for young artists of the Merola Opera Program. We look forward to Jake’s upcoming campus visits to coach our young singers in preparation for the opera and choral performances.”

Other winter vocal and opera highlights include a concert of Heggie’s choral works and the return of the Tichio-Finnie Vocal Master Class Series, featuring tenor Russell Thomas.

University Chorale with Jake Heggie

UPDATE 2/17/22: this event has been cancelled.
In anticipation of the Northwestern University Opera Theater production of Heggie’s “If I Were You,” University Chorale presents selections from the composer’s choral repertoire alongside a conversation between the composer and Bienen’s Grammy Award-winning Director of Choral Organizations Donald Nally. The University Chorale performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Tickets are free of charge and may be reserved from the Bienen School Ticket Office in-person, online at or by phone at 847-467-4000.

Jake Heggie’s “If I Were You”

Commissioned by the Merola Opera Program, Heggie’s opera “If I Were You” premiered in August 2019. Northwestern University Opera Theater’s production is the first fully staged public performance in the Midwest.

Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 - Saturday, Feb. 26, with pre-show conversation at 6:45 p.m., and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27. The Feb. 24 show includes an opening night pre-show talk with Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer at 6:45 p.m. Entry to the Feb. 24 pre-show discussion is included with ticket to the performance. Tickets are $18 for the general public and $8 for full-time students with valid ID. 

Hoping to win the heart of his beloved, dispirited young writer Fabian Hart makes a bargain with the devil. He is given the supernatural ability to move his soul and identity from person to person for as long as he likes, but if he ever returns to his own body, death awaits, and the devil will collect his soul. Will Fabian choose to live forever as other people, or die for love as himself?

Director Joachim Schamberger describes what makes the opera fun for singers to perform. “Basically, so many people get to be the lead at least for some time in the piece, so the same character goes through different voice types.”

In a virtual Q&A session for Bienen students with the opera’s librettist Gene Scheer, Heggie talked about the opera’s storyline, which is based loosely on the 1947 Julien Green novel “Si j’étais vous.”

“It felt like a piece about young people facing difficult choices and dealing in a very complicated world. It felt timeless, it felt big, it felt intimate,” he said. “I loved the confusion of this character Fabian, who I love very much but [who] does some unlovable things. I like that these people are flawed, and that is very human, too.”

Scheer comments, “The core of the story…is this yearning to explore and to be someone special, and not valuing what you have. The only thing we have is our own emotional fingerprints of life, and to learn to value that is something that is part of Fabian’s journey and all of our journeys, so it was a great pleasure to write this.” 

Russell Thomas Vocal Master Class

The Tichio-Finnie Vocal Master Class series returns with a session at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 at the Galvin Recital Hall, led by tenor Russell Thomas, featuring performances by Bienen School voice and opera students. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $5 for full-time students with valid ID. 

Bienen School tickets

Tickets for the Bienen School’s winter opera and vocal programs can be purchased from the Bienen School Ticket Office in-person, online at or by phone at 847-467-4000. All patrons, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks at all times while inside Northwestern venues.

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