Jake Heggie was a PR writer when the general director of the San Francisco Opera handpicked him to compose a score for a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally. The triumphant result, Dead Man Walking, has been performed on five continents. It was the start of a prolific career that led Opera News last July to declare Heggie “U.S. opera’s most successful composer.” And the Ohio native shows no sign of slowing down. One of three operas currently in his pipeline, It’s a Wonderful Life, is set to premiere later this year.

What was your first exposure to music?

My father was an amateur saxophone player and my mom loved music, and there were always records playing. When I was 7, we got an apartment-sized piano with 64 keys, and I started lessons and loved it from the first day.

After your father committed suicide when you were 10, you began composing. Why?

Mental illness wasn’t something people talked about. I felt isolated and unable to connect with my peers. But I felt safe and empowered in music, connected to those old composers and to the performers on my records. When I came across manuscript paper at the music store, I started writing things down — piano pieces that were stories. That was the first step toward finding a place in the world that felt right for me.

Did you enter college as a music major?

No. After high school, I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Chopin and Liszt, Verdi and Rossini, so I went to Paris. My family thought I should get a basic education; they didn’t see how I would make a living in music. So I earned an AA degree at the American College in Paris. I also continued studying privately.

What brought you to UCLA?

My composition and piano teachers said that Johana Harris would be a perfect teacher for me. And I had heard how beautiful the campus was.

What did you gain there?

Not only a solid sense of technique, but also practical aspects. David Raksin, who taught film composition, was pragmatic about timing, pacing and meaning in music. And I learned so much from Johana Harris about instinct, color and putting historical text with the music.

You dropped out of graduate school and couldn’t perform for five years. Why?

I left UCLA because I was going through a personal and professional crisis. Also, I had a focal dystonia where my hand was spasming. The focal dystonia didn’t force me out of school, but it did force me to stop playing the piano and performing for five years. I dropped out [but finished 17 years later, in 2005] and got a job doing PR marketing for the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. I had to learn to play the piano all over again.

Your big break came while doing PR for the San Francisco Opera. How did that unfold?

I had to be at rehearsals, talking to everyone. What an amazing opportunity to work in every corner of a great opera house and learn about the process by watching it happen. On my own time, I was writing for singers, including Frederica von Stade and Renée Fleming. The general director, Lotfi Mansouri ’53, called me in and said, “You’re writing songs for all these great singers, and they keep telling me how wonderful you are.” He thought I might be a theater composer. He wanted to send me to New York to meet with Terrence McNally, whom he’d been trying to get to write an opera libretto. I was thinking, “Who are you talking to?” I was a complete unknown.

How did the meeting with McNally go?

He was not particularly interested, but one day he called me out of the blue. Renée Fleming had told him, “You need to write an opera, and there’s only one composer you should work with, and that’s Jake Heggie.” The result was Dead Man Walking.

Was that an unusual choice?

Terrence came up with the idea. It was brilliant and, yes, fairly new. People were looking at classic stories, and this was contemporary. Even people who knew nothing about opera knew that story. But it was controversial on many levels — the story itself, and the fact that I was writing the score. There were so many others who people thought deserved the privilege more than I.

How did you feel?

I was blissfully unaware. I was too naïve to be scared. This project changed my life and my perspective on the kind of stories I wanted to tell on stage. I thought it was what the opera world needed — something relevant. It wasn’t until opening night that I realized what a nervy thing [it was] to have done at my age and with my level of experience.

What was the writing process like with McNally?

We each read the book several times, and I gave him lines and events that were inspiring to me. He started crafting a libretto. I read it and responded. He let my comments stew for about a year, and out popped an act one. He understood that a libretto is very different from the book to a musical. It takes so much longer to sing everything than to say it. He knew that the score had to tell the story on its own terms.

What was the next big thing for you?

In 2005, the Dallas Opera asked me to write a new piece for the first season of the new opera house they were opening in 2010. I suggested to Terrence that we work together again, and he said, “The only thing I’m interested in is Moby Dick.” My jaw dropped. He later had to withdraw from the project, but Gene Scheer did a magnificent job.

Now you’re working on an opera based on It’s a Wonderful Life. Tell us about that.

The biggest challenge is to not put the movie on the stage, but to tell the story in a way that works for the opera stage. Gene is writing the libretto. It’s going to be premiered later this year at the Houston Grand Opera.

What do you foresee for the future of opera?

I’m optimistic. There’s more new work being produced than ever, especially in the U.S. I think we’re looking for a way to claim the opera world with an art form and a vision of our own, while still respecting the history and tradition of it. There’s an appetite for it, and we want to keep it alive. Right now I have three operas in the pipeline. I still can’t believe I get to do this.