Why Opera Will Always Have a Special Place in My Life

Franci Neely
4 min readJul 25


Remember when Cher, playing the lovestruck Loretta in Moonstruck, wept at her first opera? It was Puccini’s La Bohème, and I can relate. I did not attend my first opera until I was in my 30s. While it’s something I was never exposed to as a child, it’s something I have grown to deeply love and appreciate as an adult. And you can, too.

Carmen. La Traviata. The Magic Flute. There’s just something magical about the opera that is an experience like no other. And I passionately believe that opera is a form of art everyone can enjoy.

For those who believe opera is just stuffy, ancient entertainment for old men in monocles and dowagers in elbow-length gloves, I have news for you. While I adore the classics, there are fresh and exciting works out there for the taking. I’m fortunate to call modern composer Jake Heggie a dear friend, and he has a new work I am underwriting that is debuting on Oct. 20 at the Houston Grand Opera. This innovative piece, Intelligence, is sure to be a sensation and I think everyone could benefit from seeing it.

Intelligence is set during the Civil War and explores the fascinating — and undertold — story of Mary Jane Bowser, who some historians believe was named Mary Jane Richards Denman. She was enslaved in the household of Elizabeth Van Lew, who came from a wealthy Confederate family. Van Lew was at the helm of a pro-Union, under-the-radar spy operation.

What makes the story truly unique, especially for this time period, is that while Bowser was born into slavery, she was able to read and write, which was not commonplace. In fact, in the South, it’s estimated only 10% of slaves could read and write. “Anti-literacy laws were written in response to the rise of abolitionism in the North,” noted Patrick Breen, author of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt.

Bowser was sent to work in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, where she read and reported information back to the Union. It’s such an inspiring story and she’s a significant historical figure who few people know about. I hope this show changes that — and I feel it will.

Intelligence is going to change lives. I can’t wait for people to see this heroic story rooted in such a painful part of our nation’s past. Jake is a gifted storyteller and a musical genius. His work is something to savor and share. He has delivered an endless catalog of meaningful musical contributions to the art world and is always eagerly working on his next score. I’m in awe of his talent and it’s definitely something you don’t see every day. It’s a rare gift.

My wish is to share this show with the world. I hope everyone sees it and continues to spread the word about how joyful going to the opera can be. There’s nothing else like it and what better way to dive into the world of opera than with a Jake Heggie show? Seeing Intelligence is a truly smart decision.

Over the years, I have grown close to Jake Heggie and his husband, Curt Branom, who shares a musical theater background. Jake and Curt have stayed with me at my homes in Houston and Nantucket, Massachusetts, and I have had the privilege of hearing Jake compose music for his shows. There is no way to describe how riveting it is to be exposed to this talent before it hits the world. It truly is such a gift and something I will always treasure. He has another show, Dead Man Walking, that will open this season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on Sept. 26. I am very much looking forward to attending that performance too.

Again drawing from real-life events, Dead Man Walking is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. This striking tale of redemption follows Sister Helen as she ministers to a death row inmate before he is executed. The story was also a 1995 movie for which Susan Sarandon won an Academy Award playing the crusading nun.

Jake has written nine full-length operas and supporting his great works is very important to me. I was proudly at the opening season of his show Moby-Dick, which opened at the Dallas Opera. I see the immense effort that goes into creating an opera and it’s something I have such a deep respect for. Not only is Jake a prolific opera composer, he also frequently collaborates with performing arts groups and educational institutions to offer master classes and mentor future performers.

Opera tells a story in a way no other art form can quite capture. Perhaps that’s why it’s so dear to me. I feel opera is something that all generations can benefit from being exposed to.

When you’re soaking in an opera, you really feel the power of the music. It seeps into your soul. The sound simmers and overtakes you. The powerful voices combined with passion and precise instrumentation is a symphony for the senses.

It’s impossible not to listen to the music of Carmen or La Traviata and not be delighted and completely overtaken by the music. It’s powerful. Puccini’s melodies are pure perfection. It’s some of the most beautiful music to immerse yourself in. While live performances in general are so essential to support, I think opera is a genre that needs to be more in the spotlight.