Moby-Dick

Music by Jake Heggie and Libretto by Gene Scheer

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COMPANY PREMIERE

"Achingly beautiful, magnificently sung and gorgeously staged...the audience responded with an eight-minute standing ovation" (Associated Press). Composer Jake Heggie, in his "finest creation since Dead Man Walking," and librettist Gene Scheer adapt Herman Melville's meditation on man and the sea into "a vibrant, compelling piece of musical theater" (San Francisco Chronicle). Starring as the fierce, obsessive whaling-boat captain whose descent into madness puts his crew in mortal danger is Jay Hunter Morris, whose “fiery brilliance in his resplendent upper range captured both Ahab’s inner strength and demonic possession” (Kenneth Herman, sandiego.com). Mr. Morris recently also made headlines by taking over the title role of Wagner's Siegfried both at San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers, praised by The New York Times for his "lyrical flow and suitably stormy climaxes," conducts a cast of brilliant singing actors.

Watch an interview with composer Jake Heggie conducted by Ian Campbell, General and Artistic Director at San Diego Opera, about the creation of the opera.

Moby-Dick was broadcast on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances on PBS in Fall 2013 and is still available for web streaming on demand! For more information, read the press release.

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.


Commissioned and produced by San Francisco Opera in partnership with the Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera, and the State Opera of South Australia.

Featured images: Jay Hunter Morris in Moby-Dick, photos by Photografeo/State Opera South Australia; all additional production photos by Cory Weaver and Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera.

Audio excerpts are from the Dallas Opera 2010 production of Moby-Dick with the Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Patrick Summers.

 


Cast

Greenhorn (Ishmael) Stephen Costello *
Captain Ahab Jay Hunter Morris
Starbuck Morgan Smith
Queequeg Jonathan Lemalu *
Pip Talise Trevigne *
Flask Matthew O’Neill
Stubb Robert Orth

Production Credits

Composer Jake Heggie
Librettist Gene Scheer
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Leonard Foglia
Set Designer Robert Brill
Costume Designer Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer Don Holder
Lighting Designer Gavan Swift *
Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer / Movement Director Keturah Stickann

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
Day One: The Whaling ship Pequod has been at sea for one week
 
Captain Ahab stands alone on deck in the hours before dawn. Below deck, while most of the crew sleeps, the harpooner Queequeg prays and wakes Greenhorn, a loner and newcomer to whaling. Dawn breaks and the call is made for “All Hands!” While the crew is raising the ship’s sails, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask talk about Ahab, whom no one has seen since the ship left Nantucket.
           
The crew sings of whales, wealth, and home when suddenly, Captain Ahab appears. He tells them of Moby Dick, the white whale that took off one of his legs, then nails a gold doubloon to the mast and promises it to the man who first sights him. This is the real reason they have sailed, he explains: to search the globe to find and destroy this one whale. His rousing call of “Death to Moby Dick!” excites everyone but the first mate, Starbuck. To no avail, he confronts Ahab about what he sees as a futile and blasphemous mission.
           
Starbuck instructs Greenhorn about the dangers of whaling. When he ponders never again seeing his wife and son, he is overcome with emotion and orders Queequeg to complete the lesson. Stubb sights a pod of whales, but Ahab will not allow the eager crew to hunt since they have not yet found Moby Dick. Starbuck orders the crew to sail on and sends Greenhorn up to the lookout on the masthead, joined by Queequeg.
           
As the sun begins to set, Ahab looks over the wake of the ship and mourns that his obsession deprives him of any enjoyment of beauty; all is anguish to him. At the masthead, Queequeg and Greenhorn look over the world, while Starbuck, on deck, bemoans Ahab’s madness.
 
Day Two: Three months later
 
After three months without a single whale hunt, Stubb jokes with the young cabin boy Pip about the sharks circling the ship. The song ignites a dance for the full crew, but rising tensions take over and a dangerous racial fight erupts. When Greenhorn suddenly sights a pod of whales, Starbuck is at last able to persuade Ahab to let the men hunt. Starbuck and Stubb harpoon whales, but Flask’s boat is capsized and Pip is lost at sea.
           
On board the Pequod, an enormous whale is being butchered and the oil rendered in the burning tryworks. Flask tells Ahab that the search for Pip is under way, but Ahab thinks only of finding Moby Dick. As they butcher the whale, the crew imagines Pip lost and struggling in the heart of the sea. Flask tells Starbuck that many oil barrels are leaking and he goes below to tell Ahab they must find a port for repairs.
           
Ahab is unmoved by Starbuck’s report, and is concerned only with the white whale. When Starbuck refuses to leave, Ahab grabs a gun and orders him to his knees. From afar, Greenhorn shouts that pip has been found. Ahab orders Starbuck out of the cabin.
           
On deck, the crew listens to Greenhorn describe how Queequeg rescued Pip. As the men return to work, Greenhorn pleads with Starbuck to get help for Pip. But, the first mate ignores him. Greenhorn observes how life really works on the ship and decides to befriend Queequeg.
           
Starbuck returns to Ahab’s cabin, where he finds the captain asleep. He picks up the gun with which Ahab had threatened him and contemplates what he should do. Pull the trigger and he may survive to see his wife and child again. When Ahab cries out in his sleep, Starbuck replaces the gun and leaves the cabin.
 
ACT II
 
Day Three: One year later
 
An enormous storm is approaching, but Stubb, Flask, and the crew sing a jolly work song. From the mastheads, Greenhorn and Queequeg talk of traveling together to his native island. Greenhorn wants to learn Queequeg’s language and write down their adventures. Suddenly, Queequeg collapses. The crew gets him down and Ahab announces he will take the masthead watch himself.
           
Below deck, Queequeg tells Greenhorn that he is dying and asks that a coffin be built for him. Pip enters from the shadows and sings a lament, joined by Greenhorn.
           
The massive storm now surrounds the Pequod. As Ahab sings defiantly to the heavens, bolts of lightning engulf the ship and the masts glow with St. Elmo’s Fire. Ahab demands that the men hold their posts, promising them the white flame is a sign from heaven to guide them to the white whale. The crew is inspired once again by the captain, much to Starbuck’s distress.
 
Day Four: The next morning
 
The ship has made it through the storm. From afar, the voice of Gardiner, captain of the Rachel, calls out. He pleads with Ahab to help him search for his twelve-year-old son who was lost in the storm, but Ahab refuses. Pip, who has gone mad, shouts to Gardiner of the Pequod’s own lost boy. Pip cuts himself and gets blood on Ahab’s clothes. The captain orders the ship to sail on, leaving Gardiner behind. Ahab contemplates the heartless God who devastates so many lives and baptizes his spear with Pip’s blood.
           
Below deck, Greenhorn sees Queequeg’s newly built coffin and contemplates the madness that seems to surround him.
           
On deck, Ahab and Starbuck gaze over the horizon. Ahab describes his forty years at sea and all he has left behind. And why? He cannot say. But he sees in Starbuck’s eye a human soul, and it touches him deeply. Starbuck seizes the moment and persuades Ahab that they should return to the wives and sons who wait for them in Nantucket.
           
Just has Ahab appears to relent, he sights Moby Dick on the horizon. Great excitement ensues and the whale boats are lowered. Ahab looks again in Starbuck’s eye and orders him to stay on board. The crew declares its loyalty to Ahab. During the chase, Moby Dick destroys two whaleboats in succession, drowning their crews. Then, the Pequod is rammed and sunk, killing all aboard. Ahab’s boat is then attacked and all but the captain jump or fall off. Finally alone with the white whale, Ahab cries out and stabs at Moby Dick before being dragged down into the sea.
 
Epilogue: Many days later
 
Greenhorn floats on Queequeg’s coffin, barely alive, softly singing his lost friend’s prayer. Gardiner call from afar, thinking he has at last found his missing son. Instead, he learns that Ahab and all the crew of the Pequod have drowned, except for this one survivor.

Composing Moby-Dick

Jake Heggie

The creation of this opera began in early 2005, when the Dallas Opera contacted me about composing a new work as part of the inaugural season at the Winspear Opera House in 2010. At the time, I was at work on a piece with playwright Terrence McNally. He had been the librettist for our opera Dead Man Walking (2000) and we had been on the lookout for another big project. When I asked Terrence what he thought, he said “There’s only one opera I’m interested in doing: Moby-Dick.” I think I was as stunned as anybody. It seemed a gargantuan, impossible undertaking. But he is a great man of the American theater, and when I saw the knowing sparkle in his eye, I knew it was possible.


I had never read the book itself, but when I did, I realized how essentially musical and operatic it is. The charged lyricism of Melville’s writing is deeply influenced by Shakespeare and there is great theatricality. The characters themselves are Shakespearean, and the events so epic they seem biblical. The drama could certainly fill an opera house, and it struck me that the music was already there. I could hear musical textures, rhythms, orchestral and vocal colors as I considered it. The hardest part would be to craft a workable, stage-worthy libretto.

Terrence suggested three things off the bat: Ahab should be a heroic tenor, the action of the opera should be entirely on the ship, and the cabin boy Pip should be a pants role for a soprano—the sole female voice. And then about a year into the process, Terrence had to withdraw from the project for personal reasons. It was devastating. But as luck would have it, I had worked extensively with the gifted writer Gene Scheer. He is a prolific collaborator, and we had already created several song cycles, a one-act opera (To Hell and Back), and were in the process of creating a three-character opera (Three Decembers). Gene read Moby-Dick and thought deeply about what he might be getting into. I wanted to keep Terrence’s initial thoughts, which meant Gene would have to take on something already in process. He bravely agreed to join me.

About this time, we had the idea that the famous first line of the novel—“Call me Ishmael”— should be the last line of the opera. We could treat the novel as a memoir that would be written long after the events of the opera took place. This would give us enormous freedom to move events around, create moments and dialogues that aren’t in the book, but are in the spirit of the book, and would work well on the stage. The central journeys of the opera became immediately clear and the architecture started to take shape.

We started working in earnest in April 2008 on a trip to Nantucket, where the story of the book begins. On this remarkable island, Gene and I visited the whaling museum and met with the great author Nathaniel Philbrick, who makes his home there. It was his prize-winning novel, In The Heart of the Sea, that made everything jump to life for us. His book is about the true story of the Essex, the whaling ship rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 off the coast of South America. It was this legend that inspired Melville to write his novel, and it was Philbrick’s vivid, modern, human telling of it that made all of it seem terribly real to me.

Gene worked closely with our director, Leonard Foglia, who also served as our dramaturg: asking questions, helping us to trace a meaningful, cogent, and poetic journey. All the while, I was trying to find the musical language of the opera. I wrote a chant for Queequeg and about 60 additional pages of music. In December of 2008, in agony, I discarded everything I’d written. It was good, just not good enough. What was blocking me? I realized that all of the characters had become real to me— except for Ahab. And without Ahab, you don’t have Moby-Dick. I had been trying to write from the beginning—which is what I prefer. But I had to cast that aside. Halfway through the first act libretto was the great monologue “I leave a white and turbid wake.” And there was the aching human being—the fully formed individual. The music for Ahab emerged and the world of the opera cracked open for me.

After completing that aria, I was able to go back to the first measure and compose straight through Act One. Ahab was the tree from which all branches grew. A four-chord harmonic theme became the meat of the entire opera, and from that all musical, harmonic, and rhythmic motifs emerged organically. Gene had given me a solid architecture on which to build the opera. Act Two went quickly and in July 2009, I had a complete piano/vocal score.

A workshop in San Francisco was headed by our first conductor Patrick Summers, which led to further clarification of the story and score. After orchestration and completion of the score, the extraordinary cast and crew for Moby-Dick rehearsed tirelessly in Dallas in spring 2010, and miracle of miracles, on April 30, 2010, an opera based on Moby-Dick opened and shook the rafters of the new opera house.

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Director Leonard Foglia on Moby-DIck

 


 

How did you come to work on Moby-Dick and what was the early process?

We were getting ready to premiere Three Decembers in Houston (2008) and very close to the end of the process when Jake and gene approached me about Moby-Dick. It was impossible for me to say no to the challenge of staging Moby-Dick, but even harder to pass up the opportunity to work with Jake and Gene again. Nothing had been written at that point, so I was part of the project from the very beginning and the three of us worked through it as a team.

I work on a lot of new pieces, and I’m often with them from the start. In this particular process with Moby-Dick, we all found our way through this massive book together, looking at it from three distinct points of view: gene the words, Jake the music, and me concentrating on the structure of the story.

Had you ever read Moby-Dick before your involvement in the project?

I had read it a long time ago. After Jake and gene asked me to participate, I went to a used bookstore in Houston and picked up a copy and started marking it up. I’ve bought fancier copies since then, but I still have that copy with me in rehearsals every day.

My first reaction when I started rereading the book was, “Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into?” Because when I first looked at it from a dramatic point of view it seemed to be short on plot and very long on detailed descriptions of whales and how to tie a knot, etc. It wasn’t until the second time through, with Gene’s guidance, that I began to understand the inner conflicts of these characters. And the conflicts contained in Moby-Dick are some of the biggest struggles that exist for all of us.

Many novelists today are heralded as trailblazers when they experiment with literary form, but look at what Melville did 150 years ago, and imagine what it must have been like to read Moby-Dick back then! It was ultimately freeing not to be tied to traditional form.

How did you bring the conflicts of the characters out in this story that doesn’t have a “traditional” plot?

The key is to always make sure it has an emotional arc, and each moment must connect to the next emotionally. Melville does this in the book, and that’s why you keep reading it despite the fact that it goes in and out of these vastly different narrative forms. It’s emotionally connected all the way through, and that’s what we’re going for in the opera—that emotional connection.

What was your approach in working with the design team?

At the early stages, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to stage this piece. I don’t get any sense of the visual until I hear the music. And when I heard the prelude, which has no action but contains many of the themes and motifs, that’s when I started to get a visual sense. Then I sat down with the designers. I initially wanted to deal with the notion of infinite space, the way a ship is floating in the middle of an ocean. Our projection designer Elaine McCarthy and I talked about micro vs. macro, for example how pictures of tiny bubbles underwater can resemble stars in the sky.

Robert Brill and I started with some very abstract notions about the set, and one of our first conversations was about perspective. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the story rather than watching it, seeing it from the characters’ point of view. And there were moments in the story, like when pip is lost at sea, that the ship would have to vanish. That really freed us up in conceptualizing the stage environment.

This is the fifth time Moby-Dick has been produced in less than three years. How has this opera evolved since its premiere?

By producing Moby-Dick in five cities, we’ve had the luxury of time. Time to step away, time to rethink, time to live with the piece. Nothing can replace time in the creative process. It’s the chance to keep going deeper, strip away and get more detailed. Just the other day, Jay [Hunter Morris] and I were discussing a moment, and he had a realization about playing Ahab that never occurred to either of us before. he arrives here in san Francisco at such a solid and powerful place in his portrayal of Ahab because of the time he’s had to inhabit the character.

When you’re working on a world premiere, every day brings you new information. Your cast is singing it for the first time. Then it is staged and suddenly it is in three dimensions, then the physical production, which in this case includes projections and animation as well, is added to the mix. Each step brings surprises. Then finally the orchestra arrives. Thank goodness that is not my job and we had the great Patrick Summers, who is also conducting here in San Francisco, leading that part of the ship. All these wildly talented people are adding their expertise to the opera and my job is corralling everyone into one vision so we are all telling the same story. Then the very first performance arrives and you get to see the audience’s reaction. There’s nothing as scary and as thrilling as watching that first audience walk into the theater. I am always very moved by that. Here are all these people that took an evening out of their lives, paid for tickets, got dressed up, and trust us to give them something worthy of their time. I take that very seriously.

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Chasing a Dark November

Patrick Summers

Novelist Gustav Flaubert famously claimed, “Madame Bovary contains nothing of my life ... It is one of my principles that you must not write yourself. The artist ought to be in his work like God in his creation, invisible and omnipotent.” It’s one of the big questions of the relevance of art in this age of saturation: can one separate the created from the creator or, more seriously, is there an audience for an artistic work simply because of its existence, and not merely for the level of celebrity surrounding it? Flaubert, like a great sculptor or composer, demanded of himself philosophical and emotional precision, his work a constant search for le mot juste, the “right word.” But can the content of all of his words, no matter how right, be separated from the man himself?


Photo by Karen Almond

The composer of Moby-Dick, Jake Heggie, was born to write for the voice, but like many of his fellow composers so destined (Massenet, Puccini, Verdi, Sondheim), he discovered his talents on a circuitous path: Jake started his artistic life as a pianist, studying in Paris, then at UCLA. Life took him in various disparate directions for several years before he fully grasped his talents. Jake is at the apex of at least one cultural shift in opera, the type of seismic change impossible to see clearly when in its midst. His music is a fusion of what in previous eras was known as “art song” and the most progressive of the post-Sondheim Broadway composers. It is sought by the most renowned singers of our time, something the classical field hasn’t seen in several generations. His music is intelligently wrought, with a sweeping orchestral palette; it is subtly complex, yet fully accessible; comprehensible at first hearing and, most controversially in the 21st century, unashamedly melodic. To theater people, he’s a “classical” composer; to the operatic crowd, he’s a “theater composer.” But he is, tellingly, noticed by both.

I have been privileged to conduct the world premieres of all of Jake Heggie’s operas (Moby-Dick is his fourth), a collaboration that began in our younger days—1994 at San Francisco Opera. Jake was then working in the Company’s press department. Driving me to a radio interview, Jake unassumingly mentioned that he had written some songs. I registered the remark. Time passed. One night, he played me some of his songs. Wait. Slow down. What was that? Play that again ... interesting.

In late 1995, Lotfi Mansouri, then general director of San Francisco Opera, asked me for recommendations for a composer, specifically a “newcomer,” to write a new opera for the millennium year. I told him he should look no further than his own press department. Lotfi was naturally dubious, so I advised him to consult Renée Fleming and Frederica von Stade, both of whom knew Jake’s songs. Soon Jake was no longer writing press blurbs, because the releases were about him. His first opera, Dead Man Walking, was commissioned in 1998 and received its world premiere here in 2000.

Herman Melville wrote from the depths of his psyche with a type of sublimated creative energy matched by Jake, who has described his composing process as a vibration or a “zone”—a description reflected by many composers and writers. He’s happy to leave the analysis to others, and to history. Though Jake doesn’t aspire to complexity, his works are deceptively difficult and psychologically rich; he consciously uses a virtuosic musicianship to write for a broad public.

“Accessible” is not a dirty word to Jake, indeed, it is something to which he aspires. Jake’s approach, mindful of being understood, recalls Ernest Hemingway’s famous rejoinder to William Faulkner, who had accused him of simplistic language. “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” I find it fascinating and brave that Jake could write the most complex and intricate music imaginable, but he demands an emotional concision from himself and a clear, accessible language for his audience.
A decade ago, none of us who admired the composer of Dead Man Walking would ever have predicted his tackling a subject on the scale of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the bellwether of American literature. Moby-Dick’s imagery is so embedded in American culture that many people who have never opened the book feel they have read it, and it has held its stature over the incessant din of popular culture.

The Original Great American Novel

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the epitome of an epic, famously filled with intense inner experiences, metaphors within metaphors. On the surface it would appear to be one of the most unstageable properties, although many companies mount Wagner’s epic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Moby-Dick is, more than nearly any novel ever written, a microcosm of the entire life experience and its rich metaphorical world is perfect for opera.
Every detail of Moby-Dick has been analyzed for its layered symbolism, from the two separate fields of vision of a whale, leaving it blind to anything directly in front of it (an apt metaphor for many things in life) to the potent symbolism of the mysterious whale itself. The unseen whale, of course, is God, the biblical whale of Jonah. And its meaning, the endless litany of things we cannot understand about being alive, could not be better described than by the sparkling words of Melville himself, “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.” Examine Moby-Dick at any level, and some aspect of anyone’s life can be reflected.

Comparisons to Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera Billy Budd, based on Melville’s final novel, seem inevitable. The two pieces though, share only a ship. Even the great isolating sea is different in the two works: in Billy Budd, the sea is an earthly firmament into which Billy is sacrificed; in Moby-Dick, the sea is inviting, the place for commerce and adventure. Its surface is often lovely and placid, while an inaccessible and dangerous world lies beneath. Billy Budd is a Christian parable, with Billy as Jesus, Captain Vere as Pontius Pilate, and Claggart as Herod, the three locked together in a tangled triangle of innocence corrupted, and the inexorable judgment of justice. Moby-Dick is a vastly different work from Billy Budd. In its prose and thematic grandeur, one feels the weight and influence of Shakespeare, Melville’s chief muse at the time of the novel’s conception. Ahab’s need for vengeance against a single creature that he perceives to have ruined his life creates a psychic dismemberment in him that is much worse than his lost limb. Revenge isolates him as surely as the Pequod is isolated by the sea, and it eats away at everyone around him, destroying nearly all of them. We know, though we may not understand, the motive behind Ahab’s fury; Claggart’s is never explained.

“Call me Ishmael” is the novel’s now-iconic opening sentence (and it makes a surprise appearance in the opera as well). There are endless textures of meaning in Moby-Dick, but the symbolism of the name Ishmael is particularly relevant to every other part of the tale. The biblical Ishmael was one of the two sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, the father of the Muslim people and thus a symbolic enemy of Christianity. Ishmael, an orphan (like Billy Budd and Parsifal), is forced to wander the world in penance. He is, despite his symbolic role as an outsider to the floating world of the Pequod, the moral center of the work—a man who, instead of living within an organized faith, lives his logical morality in each moment. And it saves his life.

Melville’s novel defies easy classification. For all of its sweeping grandeur and forward-driving plot, Moby-Dick also contains long passages that are hard going: detailed descriptions of whales, boats, Nantucket, all of which can be eye-glazing. But they serve a narrative purpose. By the varied mixture of his writing, Melville lulls you into believing you’re in one kind of novel just before he quickly thrusts you into another; the seemingly mundane is followed by whole streams of extraordinarily beautiful and philosophically truthful prose, the juxtaposition of which makes an unsettling read.


Members of the creative team of Moby-Dick include (clockwise from top left) Gene Scheer, Patrick Summers, Terrence McNally, and Jake Heggie. They are pictured here promoting their previous work, Three Decembers, which was co-produced by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances in December 2008 following its world premiere in Houston.

 

Jake Heggie: A Portrait

There is always talk of the “relevance” of opera to the contemporary experience, much of it centered on the art form’s persistent perception of being elitist and also on its inherent non-reality—implying that any experience in which we haven’t, or couldn’t, directly participate is inherently irrelevant. Opera, like its closest artistic cousins literature and Greek tragedy (most certainly not cinema), illustrates psychological archetypes with an emotional reality that assures its relevance if one accepts the language of music as a story-telling device. We don’t have to have actually been on a whaling ship to understand the questing and adventurous nature of whalers; it is their inner experiences that are relevant to us, even more than the events that propel the plot. It is the universal pull of emotion, which music can both penetrate and illuminate, that makes opera the ultimate art form for those in search of a weighty experience.
Jake is, at heart, a composer of songs. And even within the sweep and grandeur of his score for Moby-Dick, an unexpectedly intimate musical world arises: listen closely to the contemplative and minimalist music that opens and closes the work, listen to Pip’s “Poor Rover” or to the Greenhorn’s simple song, “Human madness is a cunning and most feline thing.” These “songs” are the intimate and most personal side of Jake’s writing, and they provide the perfect lens through which to hear the opera’s many massive music textures.

Jake rarely talks about Verdi as one of his influences, but his rhythmic and melodic senses, as well as his emotional specificity, do bring Verdi to mind. For example, the full cast concertante, sung in unison near the end of the work, “We are one body breathing, pulling to the beat of your shining heart,” is a classically Verdian gesture, but with Jake’s unique and personal melodic sense.

Jake is highly charged by text and his music is inseparable from it. The color and imagination of words, and the content of beautiful language, form the engine of his operas. Gene Scheer, the librettist of Moby-Dick, has managed to distill Melville’s vast novel down to its essence while never losing Melville’s very personal poetry, providing a febrile language that has summoned a new and more sweeping musical vocabulary than Jake has ever written before. The opera ends as it began, infinity defined, and with big questions unanswered: What has been sought? What was the meaning of the chase? What has it all been for? In perhaps the grandest metaphor of all, the great whale swims away, unperturbed and unaware of the tragedy that has been wrought in pursuit of him.

I’m often asked about the private Jake, as though he were, Wagner-like, at odds with what he writes. He is not. Jake possesses two qualities rare in the rarified world of classical music: humility and simplicity. He believes passionately that the quality of a person’s life is reflected in their art, and he quietly works each day to illustrate it. He is a man of real seriousness in his thoughts and ideas and in the lucidity with which he nails hypocrisy, sparing no one. He is one of the most fully just men I’ve ever encountered, and he is privately, but passionately, political and quietly committed to a number of important issues. It is difficult for me not to think of Jake when learning that among Herman Melville’s possessions was a jar of tea leaves that had been scraped from his grandfather’s boots the night of the Boston Tea Party. The aforementioned qualities might surprise those who have casually met Jake, as he is affable and fun-loving, quick to laugh at the funny and childish quirks of adults. The essential Jake Heggie can be detected in a famous quip by French film director Abel Gance (1889–1981), “I take life tragically, but never seriously.”
The great psychological portraiture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may make a wonderful opera someday—perhaps by Jake himself. But what can one really make of Flaubert’s claim with which I began this treatise? That his novel contains nothing of himself; that it is as impersonal as it is dispassionate, a mere technical exercise? Unknowingly, perhaps, he provided his own answer. When asked if the title heroine, with her passionate and longing life, was based on a real figure, Flaubert retorted, “Madame Bovary? C’est moi.” When we hear Captain Ahab’s haunting leitmotif, a reflective phrase that, like the captain himself, searches ceaselessly for completion, “I was made out of your fiery spirit,” we may, for a moment, believe the same of the composer of Moby-Dick.

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From Page to Stage: An Interview with Gene Scheer

Jane Ganahl

The challenge of turning Moby-Dick, one of the great classics of the English language, into an opera would have struck most librettists as Herculean. But for Gene Scheer, the effort was decidedly more Shakespearean.


“Herman Melville was a master of language,” says Scheer. “The only other author who approaches him in that regard is Shakespeare.” The comparison is not surprising, Scheer says, because Melville was highly influenced by the playwright. “Melville was reading Shakespeare just before he wrote Moby-Dick, and was full of fire. Ahab is very much like King Lear, and when you think of Pip, it’s hard not to think of the character of The Fool.” 

However you characterize it, Scheer’s assignment was enormous. “It is a daunting task to take such a famous and sprawling classic… and trim it to 60 pages,” he chuckles. And that was only the beginning. “Then the key task was to take this narrative art form and turn it into a theatrical, active form—and to provide Jake with an opportunity to allow music to tell the story.”

Jake is of course Jake Heggie, with whom Scheer has collaborated on several projects in the past—including Three Decembers (Houston Grand Opera, also co-produced by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances), which starred Frederica von Stade; the lyric drama To Hell and Back (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), which featured Patti LuPone; and a number of song cycles, as well as For a Look or a Touch, a 45-minute lyric drama written for baritone, actor, and chamber ensemble. And now, Moby-Dick, a co-commission by San Francisco Opera in partnership with the Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera, and the State Opera of South Australia.

In a radio interview, Heggie called the novel of “Moby-Dick” “innately operatic,” and said he knew that “going from that 800-page novel [to] a 60-page libretto… would take a very special person. Once we found [Scheer], I knew the music would be there.”     “Jake is very generous colleague and a great friend,” says Scheer, “We work very well together—and we’re past the point where we need to walk on eggshells when collaborating. The only criterion is whether it works.”

Scheer says he was “flattered and a bit terrified” when he was first asked to be involved. “I got the call and I said I was very honored, but let me read Moby-Dick again—the last time I had was in high school. From that point on, there were about six months of doing a lot of research, reading criticism and reading the book itself many times.”

Research also included visiting the region where Ahab lived in the novel. “Jake and I went to Nantucket, where, ironically, Melville never visited until after the novel was finished,” says Scheer. “It was the home of American whaling, and we visited a very informative museum. There I discovered that there were mastheads on all three masts on the ships of the era. So when we saw this, I realized it would be a gorgeous sight to have the whalers, atop the masts, singing to each other. That was very inspiring.” 

He also discovered some interesting facts about Melville’s life – again, with a Shakespearean connection. “There was another major literary influence on Melville in addition to Shakespeare,” says Scheer. “He had worked on a whaler himself and did everything you read about in Moby-Dick—harpooning and such. He jumped ship, participated in a mutiny, ended up in Hawaii, and wrote these adventure stories that did quite well. So when he sits down to write Moby-Dick, he thinks he’s going to just write another adventure story, but instead writes the entire book in the summer of 1850.”

But, he says, that was not the version destined to go down in history. “Moby-Dick was going to be published that fall, but then this editor asked him to review a collection of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was incredibly impressed—even compared Hawthorne to Shakespeare. They then become friends. Melville was also impressed by the dark side of Hawthorne’s writings, and decided to spend the next year rewriting the entire book, which was transformed by their relationship. It’s why Moby-Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne.” 

Armed with enormous volumes of research on the book, Scheer was yet feeling daunted by his assignment. “As I fell more in love with the book, I began to realize the enormity of the challenges before me,” he says. “This is a masterpiece of character, of language, of grand existential themes and profound conflicts—which is what grand opera is so good at portraying. It was my job to distill the core story we wanted to tell, to whittle it down to the truth you want to tell.”

One of the first decisions was to focus on just a handful of main characters. In addition to Captain Ahab, there is his loyal but increasing concerned first mate, Starbuck; the reckless harpooner Queequeg; the young and impressionable Greenhorn; and cabin boy Pip. And to create a tauter narrative than Melville’s occasionally rambling one, Scheer also cut “basically everything that happens on land,” he says. “The opera is set entirely on the ocean—which means we needed to find other ways to explain key plot points that happened elsewhere. Some of the scenes were changed—I had to weave them together differently, to heighten the dramatic conflict and shorten the length.”

Again, not an easy task, but after Moby-Dick played in both Dallas and San Diego to rave reviews, it was clear that Scheer and Heggie had risen to it. “I’ve heard from many Melville scholars and they have been incredibly supportive—even written in academic journals about how good the adaptation was,” Scheer says proudly.

The truest challenge for adapting a book into another medium, says Scheer, is that “people don’t want to see people on stage telling the story, they want to be shown the story. I struggled with how to get at the truth of the story, until I had a breakthrough, and realized I should have the story unfold through the eyes of Greenhorn, the only person who had never been on a whaling ship. His is a transformative journey.”

And then there was the matter of capturing Melville’s voice and the language of the day. “I wanted the characters to sound like flesh-and-blood people from that era,” says Scheer, “so I used Melville’s language wherever I was able. I’d say at least half of the libretto was taken directly from the book.”

As for the famed narrator (“call me Ishmael”) of Moby-Dick? “That voice is gone —it’s now in the music,” he says. Then he adds, mysteriously, “although it may make an appearance.”

Once the libretto’s draft was complete, the process began of working with Heggie on his score. “It's a collaborative process all the way through,” says Scheer. “After the text was written, and Jake started writing the music, sometimes the music would go off in another direction. So he would call me and there was a collaborative process to craft the libretto to go with the score he wanted to write.”

For Scheer, one of the bonuses of staging Moby-Dick at San Francisco Opera has been the city itself. “This is Jake’s hometown, and I feel quite at home here,” says. “I’m very excited for the opening!” He’s especially excited to see the stage in its full and dramatic glory. “When I wrote the libretto I was always aware of the enormous challenge of creating a set that was evocative and exciting. Three whaling boats going after an 85-foot sperm whale? How are we going to do this? And director Leonard Foglia said, ‘Gene, just be free to imagine, and I’ll take care of the rest of it.’ And they came up with amazing solutions to these challenges. It’s quite extraordinary how they solved it —it’s artful, elegant and exciting.”

Much like Shakespeare himself.  


Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor, and producer in San Francisco for 30 years. She is the co-founder of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival, author of the memoir Naked on the Page, and contributor to many magazines, from Bazaar to Rolling Stone and Ladies’ Home Journal.

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Herman Melville

When Herman Melville died in 1891, his death was noted in only one newspaper carrying a brief description of the “long forgotten” author. Not until the early 20th century was his novel Moby-Dick recognized as a literary masterpiece.


Image courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Born to a New York City merchant in 1819, Melville fought for a greatness that would not be realized during his lifetime. As a boy, he read extensively on his own and was fascinated with Shakespeare’s ability to capture an audience. He was also raised hearing the thrilling story of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked by a whale and sunk when Melville was just a year old.

At 20, Melville took his first voyage across the Atlantic sea as a cabin boy, and the thrilling adventures that occurred during the next five years would provide him with material for his first three novels. His first manuscript, Typee, was published 1846 to favorable reviews and sold more than 6,000 copies in the U.S. Encouraged by this success, Melville published further modest hits and then moved on to his most prolific endeavor yet—a story about one man’s need to conquer and kill a great white whale.

While he drafted Moby-Dick, Melville befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had recently published The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne provided Melville with precious feedback on his manuscript. In 1851, Moby-Dick was published in London and despite Melville’s high expectations for the novel, literary critics largely disregarded it. During Melville’s entire lifetime, the book sold only 3,000 copies.

After the disappointment of Moby-Dick’s reception, Melville battled obscurity and financial ruin for the remainder of his life. His writing was no longer commercially successful, and in 1863 he moved to New York City and worked as a customs inspector. Melville continued to pen poetry through his later years and was working on the manuscript of Billy Budd, a story about a sailor falsely accused of involvement in mutiny, when he died of a heart attack in 1891.

In the 1920s, literary scholars began to identify Moby-Dick as a work that commented upon larger issues of the American experience in the 19th century. Critics increasingly recognized Moby-Dick as one of the greatest pieces of American literature. It is taught in classrooms worldwide for its successful combination of philosophical speculation, Shakespearean rhetoric, and dramatic staging while moving an intelligent and authentic, albeit fantastic, plot.

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Nantucket, Herman Melville, and Moby-Dick

Benjamin Simons

In Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, Nantucket and its whaling history feature prominently as background, and play a central role in the plot of the Pequod’s hunt for the great white whale. But prior to the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851, the author of this quintessential work of American literature had never set foot on the island that he would immortalize as an “elbow of sand.”


In Chapter 14 of Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the definitive passage about the island: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.” Nantucket in a nutshell: a pile of sand, a glacial afterthought, but also a “corner of the world,” connecting the small with the vast, an insignificant nothing that is part of the main.

Melville marveled at the whalemen who had made Nantucket great: “What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it.”

The first Europeans settled Nantucket in the late seventeenth century. They hunted right whales in local waters, and captured “drift” whales that washed ashore, learning the practice from the island’s Native American peoples. They established whaling houses along the south shore with early try-works to boil and render the oil. Deep-sea whaling began around 1715. Since the great sperm whale inhabited the deepest parts of the oceans, Nantucketers began to make offshore voyages of fifty miles and more.

By the mid-eighteenth century larger whaleships were being built and became sea-going factories to extract and store huge quantities of oil. For the next hundred years, Nantucket whaleships would traverse the oceans of the world in search of the “greasy luck” contained in the blubber of the sperm whale. Nantucket would become the world’s leading whaling community, and by the end of the eighteenth century, whale-oil accounted for nearly half of all sterling earned by direct exports to Great Britain from the New England Colonies—most of it gathered by Nantucket-based ships.

In the early nineteenth century, with the exploration of the Pacific Ocean, Nantucket entered the Golden Age of Whaling (1815–1850). In 1833, more than one hundred Nantucket vessels roamed the world’s oceans. Melville writes, “And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.” During the Golden Age, whaling was a communal enterprise on Nantucket, involving nearly every citizen in some aspect of the whale fishery. Through intermarriage, many Nantucketers were related to one another and shared interests in each whaling voyage as if it were a family business. It was that unity of purpose that made Nantucket the greatest whaling port of the period. Through whaling, Nantucket emerged as one of the wealthiest towns in the nation.

Melville was inspired by the island’s history in general, but he based the essentials of the plot of Moby-Dick and the climactic ramming of the Pequod in particular upon the gruesome tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. In November 1820 a sperm whale rammed and sank the Essex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of miles from land, the twenty members of the crew, including Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase, were forced into three small, open boats. For ninety-five days, the men endured unimaginable hardships, including fierce storms, starvation, death, and cannibalism. Adrift at sea without food, the men drew straws to determine who would be eaten.

In 1841, Melville was a young member of the crew aboard the New Bedford whaler Acushnet when that vessel “spoke,” or “gammed,” with the Nantucket whaler Lima in the middle the Pacific Ocean. A young sailor aboard the Lima, William Henry Chase, gave Melville a copy of the account of survival and cannibalism written by his father, Owen Chase, following the ordeal of the Essex. Melville was transformed: “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me”—this must be one of the great understatements in American literature: that moment at sea sparked the decade-long imaginative eruption that would spill into Moby-Dick.

It was not until July 1852—one year after Moby-Dick’s publication—that the author first set foot on Nantucket. Melville bunked across the street from Captain George Pollard’s house. On his last day on the island, Melville met with Pollard himself. Much later he recalled the encounter: “I saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” The “nobody” Pollard, after surviving the ordeal in which he ate the flesh of his own cousin, Owen Coffin, had become the town’s night watchman. This encounter with Pollard left a deep impression on Melville. The image of the surviving whaling captain’s face was one he would take with him from his Nantucket visit—his only trip to the island that had enriched and troubled his imagination for much of his life. He would recall the captain in his poem Clarel (1876):
                                    Never he smiled;
                                    Call him, and he would come; not sour
                                    In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
                                    Patient he was, he none withstood;
                                    Oft on some secret thing would brood.
 
 
Benjamin Simons is Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association and Whaling Museum. For more information, please visit www.nha.org.

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Whale Oil: Why All the Fuss?

Benjamin Simons

 

The oil from sperm whales was the finest oil in the world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was derived from blubber of three species (right, bowhead, or baleen whales) or the more highly prized spermaceti—a wax in the head cavity of sperm whales used to control buoyancy. Once processed, it provided fuel to illuminate the lamps serving private homes, businesses, and public streets in the burgeoning industrial era. Whale oil also lit the hundreds of lighthouses dotting coastlines globally. Another critical but little known use was to lubricate the machinery of America’s booming industrial mills. Finally, spermaceti candles were the finest, cleanest burning, and most expensive candles in the world. These diversified commercial uses peaked with the explosion of early industrial era in the United States and Western Europe. Before the discovery of petroleum this made Nantucket (and later New Beford) the Exxon-Mobil headquarters of its day, although whale oil was still a key component in transmission fluid until 1972.


Image courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

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Gene Scheer's "canny libretto" and Jake Heggie's "sweeping, impassioned score...the result is a masterpiece of clarity and intensity!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Theatrically stunning...audacious and brilliant...the performance was a powerhouse display of grandeur and specificity."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"As Ahab, tenor Jay Hunter Morris sang tirelessly and with fierce lyricism."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
As Starbuck, baritone Morgan Smith "joined vocal splendor, moral authority and deep empathy in a phenomenal combination."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Patrick Summers' masterful direction of an orchestra on fire (grand work by woodwinds), and a dynamite cast."

  –San Francisco Examiner
As Greenhorn the novice seaman "who evolves into the spitting image of Melville's able Ishmael," Stephen Costello "rapturously" sings his soliloquy.

  –San Jose Mercury News
As the cabin boy Pip, Talise Trevigne's "voice is pearly, lustrous and exactingly controlled, yet it also feels untethered, free. This charismatic performer has arrived on the national stage."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Jay Hunter Morris' Captain Ahab is a force of nature...he sang with a pressurized fury that practically shook the seats of the War Memorial Opera House."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"With no weak links among the soloists, chorus and orchestra, San Francisco Opera's 'Moby-Dick' is a production to treasure."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Suffused with gorgeous harmonies and melodic music...it certainly will stay in the international repertory for a long time."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"A great physical production (Leonard Foglia's direction, Robert Brill's sets, Elaine J. McCarthy's projections)."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Prolonged cheers and standing ovation!"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Outstanding performances...Robert Orth's baritone did the joviality of Second Mate Stubb proud. All the remaining roles were well sung, including bass Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice

SPOTLIGHT ON THE PRODUCTION

Learn more about this exciting production of Moby-Dick with San Diego Opera's in-depth Spotlight:




MOBY-DICK: PAGE TO THE STAGE

Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer discuss the creation of Moby-Dick in this "Page to Stage" video from The Dallas Opera:




BEHIND THE SCENES WITH SET DESIGNER ROBERT BRILL

Get a behind the scenes look at Robert Brill's set design with this video from KPBS San Diego:




JAY HUNTER MORRIS ON CAPTAIN AHAB

Jay Hunter Morris shares his thoughts on playing Captain Ahab:






Performances

  • Wed 10/10/12 7:30pm

  • Sat 10/13/12 8:00pm *

  • Thu 10/18/12 7:30pm *

  • Sun 10/21/12 2:00pm *

  • Tue 10/23/12 8:00pm

  • Fri 10/26/12 8:00pm

  • Tue 10/30/12 7:30pm

  • Fri 11/2/12 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by the Carol Franc Buck Foundation, Leslie and George Hume, the Koret Foundation and Tad and Dianne Taube. Mr. Lemalu's appearance is made possible by a gift from Annette Campbell-White and the Kia Ora Foundation.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.