Could It’s a Wonderful Life prove ENO’s saviour?

Heaven’s above: Houston Grand Opera’s 2016 production - Karen Almond
Heaven’s above: Houston Grand Opera’s 2016 production - Karen Almond

How wonderful is It’s a Wonderful Life? James Stewart, who starred in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece as all-American hero George Bailey, thought it wonderful enough to reprise his performance in four radio versions. The story has since been retold onstage, remade for TV, and rebooted with the Muppets. There are two musicals, with a third said to be on the way from Paul McCartney and Lee Hall. And now, there is opera.

The Hollywood parable of a man who learns not to rue the life unlived is coming to English National Opera (ENO) in a new production directed by Aletta Collins and starring soprano Danielle de Niese, opening just in time for Christmas.

First composed by Jake Heggie in 2016 for Houston Grand Opera, a revised version for San Francisco Opera in 2018 was acclaimed. One critic was “completely overwhelmed and moved to the point of tears”, describing the audience in one scene as “stunned into absolute, collective silence”.

The new production arrives at a pivotal moment for ENO, which only recently had its £12.8 million annual Arts Council grant cut to zero and won’t receive further funds unless it finds a way of moving out of London and surviving on less money. The drastic decision is leaving ENO fighting for its life, and is symptomatic of what many have interpreted as a wider attack by the Arts Council on opera in its latest funding round.

But if the magical and moving story of It’s a Wonderful Life says anything, it is that we must be grateful for what we have. As the ethereal voice of de Niese as Clara – an angel who frets that she is yet to be given her wings – swells around the London Coliseum one afternoon during rehearsal, a warm blast of seasonal optimism is in the air. Such is ENO’s parlous state, this production could be make or break.

Angel’s wings: Donna Reed, James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in the 1946 film - Getty
Angel’s wings: Donna Reed, James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in the 1946 film - Getty

“I’m all for bringing funding up through the regions, but once we grow the talent they’re going to want to come to the big cultural centre on this side of the globe,” says de Niese, who first wowed British audiences in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at Glyndebourne in 2005, and is now making her ENO debut at 43. “And this is the place they come to. If that’s not here then where will the young singers go? This is a landing pad but it’s also a launching pad.”

The role of Clara, film buffs will note, doesn’t feature in Capra’s original. In the movie it is the avuncular Clarence who descends to show community-minded family man George Bailey how sadly things would have turned out in the fictional Bedford Falls had he never existed.

“The dumbest thing we could do would be to try to put the movie onstage,” reasons Heggie, speaking on Zoom from San Francisco. “I was thinking, what would make sense for the opera where vocal casting is everything? Instead of Clarence, what about Clara and she is a soprano who represents something otherworldly, and George is a tenor because of his optimism?”

That induced a more root-and-branch rethink of Capra’s plot. Where Clarence materialises only for the film’s final act, Clara is omnipresent, and on a journey of her own.

“The whole audience experiences everything through Clara’s eyes,” says de Niese. “She doesn’t really understand the depths of emotional love and the bond of a long marriage. She’s got to understand how happiness has eluded George. It’s really a very dark piece for Christmas, but then so is A Christmas Carol, right?”

The original commission from Houston was specific: to come up with an idea for a holiday opera. Though Heggie’s musical palette is lyrical with big tunes – “I always say I write musicals for opera singers and opera houses” – he was a striking choice to compose a family-friendly opera.

Magical: Houston Grand Opera’s 2016 production - Karen Almond
Magical: Houston Grand Opera’s 2016 production - Karen Almond

The operas which have made him, at 61, one of the US’s most celebrated and prolific composers wrestle with epic themes: Dead Man Walking (2000) and, with librettist Gene Scheer, Moby Dick (2010). But Heggie stuck with a favourite mantra.

“Go big or go home,” he says. “I need to be terrified before I start a new project so I don’t just repeat myself. I thought about classic stories that have that sense of big but also magic and redemption.

“All the things we yearn for at holiday time,” he continues. “It just came to me. I didn’t realise how challenging the choice was going to be – to honour the source but do something different. My writing partner said it was more challenging than Moby Dick.”

After persuading Paramount Pictures to yield up the rights, which took a couple of years, that challenge was to remould a much-loved story with a fast-talking script which leaps from the 1920s to the 1940s, from heaven to earth; from darkness to light. Heggie and Scheer chose to focus on the story’s numinous idea “that there are angels who see the value in our lives if we would only pay attention”.

An unspoken influence was the suicide of his own father when Heggie, growing up in a small town outside Columbus, Ohio, was only 10. “Of course I thought about my father,” he says. “But my father really suffered deeply from a mental illness that they could not treat. George [Bailey] is driven by despair and fear and feeling very much alone.”

Thwarted from living life on a bigger canvas, George is a complex portrait of small-town heroism. Circumstances prevent him leaving for college, for his honeymoon, or for the war, unlike his brother Harry who returns a hero. Unlike Stewart too: a decorated veteran of 20 sorties over Europe, this was his first role in five years.

It is quite a mantle to inherit for Frederick Ballentine, the American tenor who lit up the London Coliseum in 2018 playing drug-dealing pimp Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. He hadn’t seen the film. “I figured this had such a tradition in the States that I probably should know about it because I’m a good conservatory boy and I learn by example,” he says.

“Overall,” he adds, ruefully, “it may have behoved me not to watch it. I guess there is more levity [in the screen character]. That is James Stewart, but is that opera?”

Frederick Ballentine and Danielle de Niese in rehearsals - Andrew Crowley
Frederick Ballentine and Danielle de Niese in rehearsals - Andrew Crowley

Heggie asks his principals to take part in a more fundamental assault on the norms of opera. When Clara shows George how Bedford Falls would have fared without his benign presence, the orchestra falls bewilderingly silent and singing turns to speech.

“I was thinking what kind of sound world could express the gravity of what George is experiencing. He’s in a world where there’s no time. What if there is no music at all?”, says Heggie. “It’s a tall order asking opera singers to channel their gifts as a speaking actor. But great singers love that challenge.”

Heggie rounds off, as Capra did, with a tumultuous Auld Lang Syne that the audience is urged to join. As ever with this story of good cheer, tears will flow. It feels timely to be staging a cautionary tale of the terrible void left by an old acquaintance. But does ENO have its own angel who can show what its disappearance from the Coliseum would mean? It could well be It’s a Wonderful Life itself, suggests de Niese – which anyone under 21 can see for free.

“We have the Nutcracker in ballet, we’ve got pantomime for the West End. What does opera have? We need It’s a Wonderful Life,” she says. “This has got to become the Christmas spectacular that you can put on a million times and people will never not love it. If you’re not sure what ENO does, this is the perfect show.”

It’s a Wonderful Life runs at the London Coliseum from Nov 25 to Dec 10. Tickets