SAN DIEGO JEWISH JOURNAL
Title: The San Diego Opera co-produces a major new work, “Moby-Dick”
Suggested Title: An Opera of Biblical Proportion: The San Diego Opera co-produces a major new work, “Moby-Dick”
It’s a leviathan. To some, “Our American Bible.”
Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, “Moby-Dick,” is a mythical, metaphysical epic, perhaps the greatest American Classic.
When The Dallas Opera contacted acclaimed composer Jake Heggie (“Dead Man Walking”) about creating a major new work, he said, “There’s only one opera I’m interested in doing: Moby-Dick.”
The result is a multimedia extravaganza, a multinational co-production of The Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, The State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera and San Francisco Opera.
The West coast premiere opens at the Civic Theatre February 18, 2012 (it’s already been seen in Dallas and Australia, and after the co-producer presentations, it’s scheduled at a half-dozen other companies).
The Dallas reviews were rapturous: “a massive artistic accomplishment:” “powerful and emotionally irresistible”; replete with “lush, expressive music,” with “traces of Debussy, Wagner and Hollywood”; “both high-seas drama and personal tragedy”; “breathtaking to watch,” “stunningly staged and sung,” “a near-perfect version of Melville’s dense novel about an obsessed captain, a whale and the crew forced to hunt him down.”
“My main love,” says the affable, down-to-earth Heggie , “what compels me, is powerful storytelling that’s brought to life with operatic voices. I’m very proud of the production. It’s such a spectacle, but still so honest and true to the story.”
Winnowing the story down to a manageable size was no small feat.
Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer “had to focus on the central journey. And the way we got to one of the most important journeys was treating the actual novel as events that happened many years ago. This is not Ishmael’s book [in the opera, he’s called Greenhorn]; he’s actively living the situation. Then we weren’t bound by the novel – though 50% of the words are Melville’s – but this keeps it active, without a narrator.
“Greenhorn is one unformed person who thinks he’s nobody, from nowhere, who signs onto a whaling boat [the Pequod ]. Through his experience, he learns about life, connects with others aboard, and comes into himself.”
Of course, the central character is Captain Ahab, the charismatic monomaniac who lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, and is seeking revenge at any cost.
“Ahab is the tree out of which all branches grow,” says Heggie . “Every decision he makes affects everyone. So there are two central journeys in the opera: Greenhorn’s and Ahab’s. People, interactions and events help define the characters and their journeys.
“We thought Melville scholars wouldn’t like it,” Heggie continues, “because we didn’t try to be literal. We opened it up, made it three-dimensional. They were thrilled. They thought it captured the essence of the book.”
The Jews, Jonah and the Biblical Connection
There are numerous themes and copious Biblical references in Melville’s massive novel.
Consider the first three words of the work – “Call me Ishmael” – one of the most famous lines in literary history (Surprise: It isn’t the first line in the opera).
“In Melville’s time,” says Heggie ,”those words would have been shocking, powerful. Like saying ‘Call me Saddam’ or ‘Call me Osama.’
“Ishmael,” explains Rabbi Berk of Congregation Beth Israel, “was the son of Abraham and Hagar, the servant of his long-barren wife, Sarah. In the ancient world, the handmaiden was like a substitute wife; that was accepted practice.
“How shocking it must have been, then, for Hagar and Ishmael to be expelled, after Sarah gave birth to Isaac. In the Bible, as in ‘Moby-Dick,’ Ishmael is an outcast, an alienated wanderer. The Biblical Ishmael became the father of Islam. That’s why we say the Jews and Arabs are ‘cousins.’ Interestingly, in the Koran, Abraham doesn’t abandon Ishmael and his mother; he visits them regularly.
“As for Ahab,” the Rabbi continues, “he was an evil Jewish king in the 9th century B.C.E., a contemporary of Elijah [another character in the novel, also a prophesier]. Ahab, married to Jezebel, was obsessed with the worship of Ba’al . Like Melville’s Ahab, he had a singular pursuit that led people astray and led to destruction.”
Perhaps the most direct Biblical link in “Moby-Dick” is the story of Jonah and the whale, which features prominently in a sermon delivered by Father Mapple to the whalers.
“Both Jonah and Captain Ahab go against the will of God,” says Rabbi Berk . “Jonah is arrogant and thinks he can disobey God, avoid God’s mission for him, by fleeing.
“Father Mapple’s sermon has two lessons,” according to the Rabbi. “One is the folly of thinking you can fool or run away from God. That’s a lesson we Jews tend to get from it, and one of the reasons we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The second lesson is to speak the truth in the face of hostility or lies. That’s the role of the Hebrew prophet; in the novel, that probably refers to Ishmael, who will speak some harsh things about the voyage with Captain Ahab.
“Jonah repents during his days in the whale, and averts the death decree. Ahab never backs down; he pays with his life – and the lives of his crew.”
(Rabbi Berk will discuss the commonalities further, in a San Diego Opera ‘Conversation’; see below).
One of the aims of Heggie’s opera was to personalize Ahab, not just make him “an evil obsessive.”
“That’s what he feels; that’s not who he is. We see him as an aching, confused, wounded individual, who’s driven. He’s going mad and there’s nothing he can do about it.
“He’s a successful leader,” adds Heggie . “He knows how to inspire his crew. But there’s something in him. Like a soldier who keeps returning to war. He has to be at sea, hunting whales. This whale has offended him so deeply, he has to go after him.”
Heggie is thrilled with his celebrated stage director, Leonard Foglia , and his much-admired cast, headed by Ben Heppner, one of the world’s leading dramatic tenors, who will reprise his lionized Dallas performance as Ahab. Heggie also lauds his creative team, which includes “gifted” scenic designer, Robert Brill, a former San Diegan, and “genius” projection designer, Elaine J. McCarthy.
“Everyone is totally focused on serving the drama and telling the story.”
And what a whale of a tale it is.
[The West coast premiere of Moby-Dick, a San Diego Opera co-production composed by Jake Heggie , runs February 18-26 at the Civic Theatre. 619-533-7000; www.sdopera.com
Rabbi Michael Berk will join Dr. Nicolas Reveles , the Geisel Director of Education and Outreach for the San Diego Opera, for “Moby-Dick and Reflections on the Book of Jonah,” December 7, at Congregation Beth Israel.
Composer Jake Heggie will be in town for a conversation with SDO general and artistic director Ian Campbell, December 6 at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla]
©2011 PAT LAUNER