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Unsung Civil War spy story inspires Heggie's opera, 'Intelligence'

Composer Jake Heggie at work.
James Niebuhr
Composer Jake Heggie at work.

Eight years ago, composer Jake Heggie was attending an event at the Smithsonian Institute when a docent walked up to him.

“I have a great idea for your next opera,” Heggie recalled the man saying.

“Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser?” the man said. “They were spies for the north in Richmond during the Civil War.”

Heggie said he had never heard the story.

“Look them up. That needs to be your next opera.”

The docent left, and to this day, Heggie has no idea who he was, but the opera “Intelligence” was born from that short conversation, and it’s now premiering at the Houston Grand Opera this month with Jamie Barton and Janai Brugger as the two women—one white, one Black—who created a spy ring to smuggle Confederate secrets to the White House.

“It’s a beautiful, touching, moving, exciting story,” Heggie said.

Learn more about the history behind the opera at this link, and listen to our interview with Jake Heggie using the audio link at the top of this page.


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Barry Brake is a composer, jazz and classical pianist who has been a part of San Antonio's music scene for decades. You can find his musings and musical exploits online here: http://barrybrake.com/