Backstage at San Francisco Opera > October 2012 > Moby-Dick: Better as an opera than a book?
Moby-Dick: Better as an opera than a book?
You could say I’m a reader. I’m the person who HAS to read the book before seeing the movie. I am a card-carrying member of not one, but two book clubs – one focusing on classics, and the other on sci-fi/fantasy novels. Yes, I really am that dorky. And if my geek flag wasn’t waving high enough already, I literally squealed with delight when I first learned we would be co-producing an opera based on the classic Moby-Dick. In the words of one international man of mystery: This was my bag, baby.

So I cajoled politely asked my friends in our classics book club to consider reading Moby-Dick in advance of the opera opening in October. After all, guys, it’s the most famous novel no one has ever read! And since most of us had managed to get through our many years of education without tackling Melville’s epic tome, this seemed as good a time as any to undertake one of the greatest American novels.

[Above: The crew of the Pequod spots a whale. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
And undertake we did. Melville’s Moby-Dick is alternatingly brilliant and frustrating, transcendent and hilarious and then completely and utterly maddening. It chronicles the journey of the Pequod and its Captain, the megalomaniacal Ahab, who had a rather unfortunate run-in with the business end of a great white whale. Moby Dick took a chunk of Ahab’s leg (and his spirit) down to Davy Jones locker, and Ahab is hell-bent on revenge. The Pequod’s other inhabitants include first mate Starbuck, the uncaffeinated moral compass of the novel; Queequeg, the endearingly kind and lovable Polynesian harpooner; and the man called Ishmael (Greenhorn in the opera), the source of one of the most famous opening lines in all of Western literature. Ishmael – the same name as the outcast son of Abraham, a man with no home and no connections – in short, a man perfectly suited for a life at sea.

[Above: The crew of the Pequod embarks in their whaling boats. Photo by Cory Weaver.]

Let’s also not forget the countless pages on all things whale that can be found in Moby-Dick. Chapter 57 alone covers Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars. It's as riveting as it sounds. And it's only one of the 135 chapters of the book. But interspersed between these long, tangential chapters are genuinely riveting stories of the inhabitants of the Pequod, to which the modern reader so desperately wants to get back. Instead, when you see Melville going onto another long tangent, you can’t help but think “Come on!”

[Above: Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris) is hell-bent on revenge against Moby Dick. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
However, that’s where the genius of opera librettist Gene Scheer really shines. Scheer has managed to maintain the essence of Melville’s beautiful prose in the opera Moby-Dick, while at the same time stripping the story down to the core conflicts: that of Ahab and the whale, and of the inhabitants of the Pequod, out on a journey that they know will bring them to their doom. It doesn’t try to exactly replicate the literary experience, but rather to create the experience of Moby-Dick in a way that is suited to its art form (in this case, opera). Sort of like Peter Jackson having the good sense to distill The Lord of the Rings down to a story/film without Tom Bombadil.

Need an example? Below is an excerpt from Chapter 132 (“The Symphony”) of Moby-Dick:

Starbuck: "Oh, my Captain! My Captain! Noble soul! Grand old heart, after all! Why should anyone give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters! Let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's--wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! Let us away!--this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket."

Ahab: "They have, they have. I have seen them--some summer days in the morning. About this time--yes, it is his noon nap now--the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again."

[Above: Starbuck (Morgan Smith) implores Captain Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris) to relent from his obsessive quest to find and kill Moby Dick. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
And here is how Scheer translated those very words into the opera’s libretto – capturing the essence of Melville’s voice, but distilling it down and making it work for the operatic form:


Oh Captain! Grand old heart after all!
Why should anyone give chase to that hated fish?
Let me alter the course, sir!
How cheerily, how hilariously, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again!
Oh, sir, I think they have some such mild, blue days even as this in old Nantucket.


They have.
I have seen them. 
Some summer days in the morning;
Some summer days, mild and blue.
About this time it is his noon naptime
My boy vivaciously awakes;
Sits up in bed and his mother tells him of me;
Of cannibal old me. 
How I am abroad upon the deep
But will yet come back to dance him again. 

See what I mean? Scheer’s libretto is lyrical but more modern, yet all the while staying faithful to Melville’s spirit. And it keeps alive the tension of the novel’s core conflicts and relationships.

It’s been said that Scheer is the quiet hero of the piece, for he is the person who conquered the seemingly impossible task of making this epic tome into an opera. Add to it Jake Heggie’s incredibly beautiful score, Robert Brill’s eye-popping set design, and a truly stellar cast, and you have one heckuva of a magical opera. So I’m going to go ahead and say it: you don’t need to read the book in order to see Moby-Dick. In fact, I almost encourage you not to.
Posted: 10/9/2012 1:51:11 PM by Kristen Jones (Senior Leadership Gifts Officer)
Filed under: 2012-13Season, MobyDick


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