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Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Photografeo courtesy of San Diego Opera]
24 Feb 2012

Moby-Dick, San Diego

When Captain Ahab sailed the Pequod into San Diego this week, he brought a new American opera with him. Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a stunning work likely to have universal appeal.

Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick

Queegueg:Jonathan Lemalu; Greenhorn:Johnathan Boyd; Starbuck:Morgan Smith; Pip:Talise Ttrevigne; Captain Ahab:Jay Hunter Morris; Conductor: Joseph Mechavich; Director and Dramaturg:Leonard Foglia; Librettist:Gene Scheer; Scenic Designer:Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Designer:Donald Holder; Projection Designer:Elaine J. McCarthy.

Above: Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab [Photo by Photografeo courtesy of San Diego Opera]


Its libretto is taut and clear, its music accessible and appealing, and its visual effects spectacular and breathtaking. If you can get to see this production, do not miss it.

Moby-Dick, first performed by the Dallas Opera company in 2010, was jointly commissioned by Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary Operas and the State Opera of South Australia. Calgary and South Australia have already seen it. The San Diego production marks its West Coast premier. San Francisco will see it this fall.

Melville was an author obsessed with telling what he considered the whole truth about everything. “Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety,” he wrote while at work on Moby-Dick. Its main characters’ histories and emotional stories, its metaphorical, symbolic meanings were buried deep in over seven hundred pages of side tales and expository material. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer miraculously reduced this leviathan work to two dramatic acts. Working with director and dramaturg Leonard Foglia and a visual production team, they shaped the material into an opera in which words, music and extraordinary visual effects flow together seamlessly.

The ingenious sets and projections begin during the overture and take us from the starry heaven to the deck of the Pequod just as the curtain rises. As the story rolls on we see the crew climbing the rigging, the ship jibing, a boy flailing in hostile seas, harpooners leaping in and falling out of small boats. Amazingly there is singing going on all the time.

Sheer’s libretto effectively captures the essence of human longings and love through poetic language and occasional patterns of rhyme. He centered the plot in two struggles as seen through two sets of relationships. The core of Moby-Dick is the moral and ethical struggle between the mad Captain Ahab ruthlessly pursing the white whale, and Starbuck, his principled first mate, who tries vainly to become the unhearing Ahab’s voice of conscience. We learn the yearning of the fearful young seaman called Greenhorn, who knows little of life and less about sailing, through his interaction with Queequeg, the self-contained aborigine harpooner, who befriends him. Then there is the cabin boy, Pip, loved by all, who sings, dances, plays his tambourine, and goes mad. The large crew provides an impressive male chorus.

Conductor Joseph Mechavich, replacing San Diego’s principal conductor, Karen Keltner, who became ill just before rehearsals were to begin, led an assured performance. Mechavich had conducted the work in Calgary. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris who had sung Captain Ahab in Australia was literally dropped into costume overnight after a run of Siegfrieds at the Met, when Ben Heppner left after the first performance. Stomping around on his peg leg, Morris handled the role’s high tessitura effortlessly. His second act duet with the excellent Morgan Smith, a veteran Starbuck, new to San Diego, was memorable. Jonathan Boyd, new to both San Diego and the role, was a sweet voiced Greenhorn, perfectly paired with the Queegueg of bass Jonathan Lemalu, another Moby Dick veteran, debuting in San Diego. The duet in which the two, high in the rigging, dream of a peaceful future on Queegueg’s island, is almost a love song. Soprano Talise Trevigne’s rich soprano, coupled with her agility and charm made one feel for the unfortunate Pip.

Jake Heggie is a composer known for his songs as well as operas. He not only writes movingly for the voice, but commands a rich and colorful orchestral palette, and has an enormous lyric gift. Extraordinarily for a newly heard work, a friend and I left the opera house singing snatches of its oft repeating orchestral themes. Is this good or bad? Will this score with its movie-music edge and oft repeated theme, survive? I have no doubt that the opera’s prelude and sea music will someday become a Moby-Dick suite, much like Sea Interludes taken from Britten’s Peter Grimes. There is much in this work both literally and musically of Britten’s Billy Budd (also based on a Melville novel). Musical references to Puccini, Bernstein, even Copland and Philip Glass have all been noted in Heggie’s score. But it is Heggie’s score alone that will determine the place of Moby Dick in the operatic repertoire.

I’d like to think that Moby-Dick will long be a part of the American operatic scene. But I worry how it will fare if and when less expensive productions cannot do justice to the visual aspects of the production. Will the music and story hold up?

The first act of the opera is spell binding as the visuals and story lines unfold before us. The second act, while visually brilliant, and offering two lyrical duets, is somewhat static, as we await the predictable conclusion. The Pequod is destroyed, the crew is lost at sea. We are astounded by the speed and brilliance of the scene, by the powerful rhythms and clashing dissonances of the sea, but we are not deeply moved. We have witnessed a huge tragedy, good people have died, but there is no single character aboard the Pequod whose fate moves us to tears; no Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, nor even the murderous barge captain, Michele in Il Tabarro.

Make no mistake, this was a thrilling evening of opera, greeted enthusiastically by a grateful audience. I left the theater feeling that American composers, writers and visual artists will keep opera alive throughout this still new century. .

Kudos to the San Diego opera company for having brought this work to its stage. Though not privy to the company’s internal workings, I know that aside from raising $2,398,956 required for artists, crews, sets, and everything else, its General and Artistic Director Ian Campbell and staff had to replace his conductor once and his star tenor, twice. So I’m grateful that Mr. Campbell too seems to have been a bit obsessed with finding Moby-Dick.

Estelle Gilson

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