World Premiere Review: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010

Dallas Opera was the setting for the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, which may prove to be a seminal 21st century American opera.  Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” (which premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera) is one of the handful of recent operatic works to have surpassed the 100 performance mark. Even so, it should not take long before “Moby Dick” becomes the opera with whom Heggie’s name is most often associated.

Not only do I suspect that “Moby Dick” will propel Heggie to the first rank of the extraordinary current crop of contemporary American opera composers, I believe that it quite possibly (at least until some future  blockbuster eclipses it, either by Heggie or another composer taking up his challenge), will become the most popular opera written so far during our young century.

[ Below: Ben Heppner, creator of the role of Captain Ahab; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Because it is a co-production with four other companies in three countries, it is assured of widespread attention and even invites the kind of “nip and tuck” revisions that many of the 19th and early 20th century masterworks that comprise the standard repertory received from their composers. And, because Heggie is still a young man, who surely has not yet achieved the full measure of his creative powers, it augurs the possibility that even greater works from his pen (or computer keyboard or whatever he uses) are yet to come.

There may be those who will argue that much of Heggie’s music is derivative, plowing fields cultivated in the past, instead of clearing new lands. Those musicologists suspicious of tonalities that, even though not imitating their styles, likely would not have displeased Puccini, Janacek or Richard Strauss; those critics who abhor melody; and those who eschew all operatic conventions of the Romantic era, may be uneasy with the palette that Heggie uses.

Heggie’s melodies are effusive, his orchestration as densely textured as it is sonorously beautiful. His orchestral interludes deserve to be nominated as our century’s candidates as sonic seascapes to stand besides those of Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Wagner.

[Below: the men of the Pequod in their whale boats; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Heggie unabashedly utilizes the convention of ensembles, with duets, trios and quartets, some with full chorus. In an opera, in which, like “Billy Budd”, Britten’s operatic version of a Melville sea story, all of whose characters are male, Heggie has written the role of Pip the cabin boy for a musico soprano. This allows Heggie to compose what may seem the most unexpected event to take place in a 21st century opera on a serious theme – a soprano mad scene.

Melville and Moby

Melville’s metaphorical masterpiece is about one man’s obsession with destroying a specific individual of another species, in that quest destroying his own world without accomplishing his goal. Melville’s Moby Dick is partly an eloquent, though now wholly unfashionable, defense of the whaling industry (Melville opining that whales are so hard to catch that human activity cannot have an impact on their numbers), and partly an exposition of whaling methods and tools. More germane to the artistic themes of the 21st century, it is partly a plea for acceptance of other human cultures. But the part of “Moby Dick” that would interest the opera composer and librettist is Melville’s main story arc and the interrelationships of the officers and crew of the whaling vessel Pequod.

Composer Heggie and his librettist, Gene Scheer, have produced a basic story line that is generally faithful to Melville. Ishmael (who in the opera is called only “the Greenhorn” until the opera’s final line) and the Pacific Islander harpooner Queequeg have developed an intense friendship and have determined to sign up for a whaling voyage together.

[Below: shipmates Ishmael the Greenhorn (Stephen Costello, left) and Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, right) discuss the meaning of life from the riggings of the whaler, Pequod; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

They choose the Nantucket vessel Pequod, commanded by the one-legged Captain Ahab, whom they learn has lost his leg to a white whale, named Moby Dick, and who has sworn vengeance to destroy the whale. Ahab persuades his entire crew to swear an oath to kill Moby, and, despite the misgivings of the first officer, Starbuck, the Pequod Captain and crew become one in a determined quest to find and kill the whale.

[Below: What’s the worst that can happen? The Pequod’s three harpooners ceremoniously present their harpoons to Captain Ahab as the crew of the Pequod swear an oath to join Ahab in the pursuit to kill Moby Dick; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Queequeg falls ill to a fever and a coffin is built for him, but he recovers and the coffin is converted to a life-buoy. Ahab is the member of the crew who actually first spots Moby, and he sends the whaleboats out to kill him, but Moby’s strength overpowers and destroys all the whaleboats and the Pequod itself. Everyone is lost, except for Ishmael who hangs onto Queequeg’s coffin/life-buoy until, several days later, Ishmael is rescued by another ship.

Heggie’s Team

Only a dozen years ago Heggie was a press officer for the San Francisco Opera, with extraordinary talents for writing for the human voice that were unknown to most of the operatic world. His work was championed by Conductor Patrick Summers, at that time also based at the San Francisco Opera. Summers has conducted each of Heggie’s four operas to date, and was at the helm for this world premiere.

Like Summers, the production’s director, Leonard Foglia, has collaborated with Heggie on all of his previous operas. Heggie’s “core team” was joined by Broadway set designer Robert Brill, whom this website had praised previously for his stunning production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” at San Diego Opera (see Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007.)

Integrated with Brill’s set designs are the projections of Elaine J. McCarthy. Between the Brill sets and the McCarthy projections the audience experiences  the feel of the Pequod and its whaleboats sailing through often stormy seas. At all times the projections give those watching the sense of movement, be it the Pequod in calm or rough waters, or of harpoons fastened to long ropes hurtling through the air from the whale boats.

[Below: an interplay of Robert Brill’s sets and Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections as the fastening ropes follow harpoons through the air; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Leviathan Lite

Despite the frequent spotting by the men of the Pequod of pods of whales and the final destructive surge of Moby Dick, the production made no attempt to display whales themselves, but at all times was focused on the points of view of the Pequod’s captain, officers and men.

Notes on the Production

Heggie’s opera distills five points in time from Melville’s sprawling work that are named days one through four and the epilogue. The first two days take place in the first act. Day one occurs a week after the Pequod has left Nantucket, day two three months later. After the intermission are days three and four, consecutive days a year later, and the epilogue occurs when Ishmael is found, “many days later”.

Summers’ leads the Dallas Opera orchestra in Heggie’s beautifully constructed sea painting, as delicately enchanting as one of Debussy’s. This opera, composed for the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, displays the state of the art acoustics of this new theater.

A section of the front scrim at stage left is lifted for a flashback to what we know from Melville is a scene at  the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford. The Spouter landlord convinced Ishmael (Stephen Costello) that, every bed in his inn being completely full, he should share a bed with the pagan Fijian harpooner Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu). From this experience, an intense friendship evolved that is one of the themes of both Melville’s book and Heggie’s opera. Ishmael joins his new friend in a prayer ceremony to a small wooden idol.

Soon we see Brill’s basic set – a representation of masts and riggings, and, when underway, the sails of the Pequod. The placid beginning leads to the first scene in which the Dallas Orchestra and Chorus demonstrate how they can produce, intensified by the Winspear acoustics, a “wall of sound” of Wagnerian dimensions.

Eventually the mysterious Ahab, a part written for heldentenor Ben Heppner, appears. Heppner imposingly personifies this man whose mission subsumes every other human concern – be it his own family, the economic purpose of the voyage he commands, or the survival of himself and his ship’s crew.

Heggie and Scheer do not portray Ahab as a madman, but we the audience can see the madness in his mission. Even Ahab’s brief moments of relative tenderness do not mitigate the lack of sympathy one has for the character. However, one must admire Heppner’s mastery of  Heggie’s intense, often monochromatic, but sometimes sweetly lyrical, music assigned Ahab.

Heralding the potential for the opera’s long term success, Ahab’s exhortation of a jaunty, spirit-of-the-moment, oath from the crew to join him in the destruction of Moby Dick received applause from the Dallas audience and established a pattern of the audience demonstrating their approval of key musical passages throughout the performance.

[Below: Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, left) holds a doubloon that will be given to the person who first spots Moby Dick, as the cabin boy Pip (Talise Trevigne) and Stubb (Robert Orth, in hat, right foreground) look on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

In a scene reminiscent of the “dancing below decks” scene in “Billy Budd” (or the miners’ camp in Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”) men who lack female companionship dance with one another. Robert Orth and Matthew O’Neill provided believable characterizations of Stubb and Flask, who in this opera each seem to be more “one of the boys” than Starbuck’s second and third mates.

[Below: Flask (Matthew O’Neill, center left, in blue shirt) dances with Stubb (Robert Orth, in green) as Pip (Talise Trevigne, left) looks on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

This website has been an admirer of Costello’s leggiero tenor, including a previous assignment at Dallas Opera (The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009) and another last month in San Diego (Costello, Perez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010). His important dialogue with the first officer, Starbuck, was absorbing.

I found Morgan Smith’s stellar Starbuck to be the evening’s standout performance. Starbuck, like Mime in Wagner’s “Siegfried” (although for different reasons), does not want a fearless man near him, and sends Greenhorn off to Queequeg for instruction in the dangers that men face in the small whaleboats they must use to pursue their prey. Starbuck’s misgivings about foolhardy behavior in such a dangerous environment as a small whaler in the vast ocean is confirmed when Pip falls overboard into the ocean, but Ahab refuses to slow down his quest for Moby Dick for a search and rescue mission.

[Below: Pip (Talise Trevigne) falls overboard into the ocean; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

All of the characters now established, the inexorable consequences of the oath of all to share Ahab’s quest for vengeance play out. The young boy Pip, lost for a time at sea, has become mentally unbalanced by the time of his rescue (providing the scenes of madness expertly sung by Talise Trevigne and receiving an audience ovation). Smith’s angry Starbuck confronts Ahab, and, as a result, both captain and first mate each find themselves (at different times) drawing a loaded musket to kill the other.

Starbuck, ending the first act, raises the question designed to trouble the audience. With his near certainty that Ahab will lead them all to their deaths, would Starbuck be justified in murdering him? Here the music is reminiscent of Sondheim and the recent traditions of American musicals with serious themes, which clearly influence Heggie’s music.

[Below: Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner) and Starbuck (Morgan Smith) each finds reason to kill the other; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

The second act takes place on the two consecutive days one and a quarter years after the Pequod left Nantucket. Ahab feels he is closing in on Moby Dick. A desperate Captain Gardiner of the whaling ship Rachel, whose son has fallen overboard and for whom his ship is searching, tries to hire the Pequod to help in the rescue mission. But Ahab is too intent on finding  Moby to commit his ship to a mere mission of mercy. The following day, even as Heppner’s Ahab appears to soften a bit thinking of his young wife at home, it is he that spots the white whale and who takes the doubloon as his reward.

He commits himself and his men to the destruction of Moby Dick. But the angry whale is too strong for the forces Ahab has brought against him. He destroys two whaleboats and the Pequod. With only the solitary Ahab left in his whaleboat, Moby Dick pulls Ahab into the sea, where he drowns.

It is possible to think of variant ways of presenting Melville’s story, and, perhaps, if I were composer or librettist, I would have changed the emphasis at one point or another. Even so, as an admirer of Melville’s great work, it is hard to imagine a more faithful and effective extraction of the essence of Melville’s Moby Dick.

One of the underlying beliefs of this website is that the works that comprise the standard repertory have remained successful over the decades, because they provide stories that are timeless, yet subject to new interpretations that are relevant to later ages; and bring together dramatic situations, whose presentation on stage is intensified by the vocal, choral and orchestral elements that comprise it.

There are candidate operas that should be welcomed into or should return to the standard repertory that hail from earlier decades and centuries, including some from the late 20th century. Nothing in the criteria for a standard repertory excludes new works, but often those very persons who decry the standard repertory have elitist tastes that produce works that do not appeal to the general opera-going public.

We now are in an age where one can actually believe that new works are being written that are accessible and have a good chance of joining the works of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and such French composers as Gounod and Bizet in an enlarged standard repertory.  Jake Heggie is, to my mind, one of the likeliest of contemporary artists to create works for that will become living classics.

“Moby Dick” is the evidence that great American operas are beginning to emerge. The Dallas Opera audience ovations that occurred over the music and the long standing ovation for Heggie and Scheer, for his production team and for the talented cast, are evidence that this is a “modern opera” that has caught the opera-going public’s imagination.

Any opera lover who has a chance to see the later performances of this work at the Dallas Opera should do so. For those who need a longer timeline (or wish to see it again soon) one suspects that it is part of the San Diego Opera’s 2012 season and should show up not too long afterward at the San Francisco Opera, and after that the Calgary Opera and Opera Company of South Australia.