When I found out I was going to be the assistant conductor for Moby-Dick, I knew it meant that I was going to have to read the book. My attitude about that prospect was probably very much like yours. Sigh. But the choice was unflinching: Either I'm going to read Moby-Dick now, when I have every possible motivation and sufficient time, or I'm just never going to read it. Short of actually going on an extreme whaling vacation, I couldn't think of a more obvious circumstance to do something that I've long said I wanted to do. I'm happy I read it, and it made me feel more prepared, but it was unnecessary. Heggie's Moby-Dick does not need a primer to appreciate it, to explain it or even to fill in the blanks, it stands on its own as a thrilling and genuinely dramatic modern opera. But let's back up.
This is my second "modern" opera I have been assigned to at SFO as staff conductor (the first being this past summer's Nixon in China.) I love working on new operas, (even if Nixon is a quarter century old now!) Why is that? Because when you go see a beloved opera, your attention is on the performance. How is the singing? Are the tempos too slow? Did he take the high note? Very few thoughts are on the opera anymore. If a singer doesn't convey the emotion of the moment, that's her fault. We rarely fault the composer for the challenge and when we do its usually just technical: he wrote it too high or the orchestration is too thick and we move on. The opera itself is taken for granted, by everyone. For us on the music staff that can be just as hard if not harder. We've grown up with these operas and have accepted them into our lives unconditionally. Its hard to step back and question its construction as an opera and a work of art.
(Above: Joseph Marcheso at the podium for a Moby-Dick staging rehearsal, photo by author).
With a new opera, we get to interact with the medium again. We're no longer working on and appreciating an inherited favorite but are coming to terms ourselves with a brand new work written for us and our time. This is great because it brings us back in touch with the art form itself where we're free to question the very devices and structure of opera. Moby-Dick is a wonderful example of a modern opera that has a lot to say about the evolution of these devices. It has chorus numbers, oath taking, motivic development, a travesti role, orchestral interludes between scenes, and self contained set pieces. In some form or other it avails itself or references almost all of the tools that opera composers have made their own from before Mozart's day to now. Now we have the opportunity to hear the music not just of an opera but of opera. When we watch Moby-Dick unfold, we get excited that there are still thrilling opportunities in these operatic forms. The act 1 quartet between Starbuck and Ahab, Queequeg and Greenhorn, Ahab's oath, Starbucks aria, the duet between Queequeg and Greenhorn, and the storm scene all show that the dramatic principles of opera are alive and well when a composer has something to say. When we see Pip, the young boy on board the Pequod played by a soprano, we recognize her as a descendent of Cherubino, Romeo and Oscar. When Ahab claims the doubloon for sighting Moby Dick and the orchestra plays the quest and Ahab's obsession themes together for the first time, that's a kind of dramatic and physical satisfaction that only opera is capable of giving you.
The production itself though is beyond what most composers could have hoped for. From the stunning projections to the multi-dimensions of the set and the astonishing amount of action that it is capable of representing, 21st century theatrical techniques, training and technology are able to meet the unwieldiest ambitions of their creators. This is a definite advantage that opera has now and one that lifts all boats (pardon the pun) old and new.
(Above: The cast of Moby-Dick in performance. Photo by Cory Weaver).
None of this touches upon the performers, all the people who come together night after night to sing, play, conduct and call the show. I think I would need another blog entry to talk about them. I can say that another wonderful thing modern opera does is that it turns performers from recreators to evangelists. In a traditional opera, performers and audiences come together to create and find the beauty and the truth of things long familiar. With Moby-Dick, we go on stage because we believe in this work and want to convince you, the audience, through our commitment and trust in the beauty of this music and this experience. We want to sell this work to you in the same way all those other operas in the past were sold. We want you to come and see for yourself whether Moby-Dick is not the most compelling and beautiful opera, old or new, that you've heard in a long time.