San Francisco Opera | Chasing a Dark November

Chasing a Dark November

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?

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.

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.

Director Leonard Foglia on Moby-Dick