San Francisco Opera | From Page to Stage: An Interview with Moby-Dick Librettist Gene Scheer

From Page to Stage: An Interview with Moby-Dick Librettist Gene Scheer

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.

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