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"Moby-Dick" by San Francisco Opera

Grand Themes & Production Make Melville's Novel Accessible

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Whaling boats in San Francisco Opera's Moby-Dick production.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

Moby-Dick is a high-school student’s nightmare, a slow-moving novel lauded as a classic, riddled with Herman Melville’s meandering passages and dull minutiae about the 19th-century whaling industry, ambergris and cetology, all narrated after the fact. But as a San Francisco Opera production, it’s a leviathan that will move even people who are lukewarm about opera.

Opening on October 10, the opera has eight performances at the War Memorial Opera House through November 2, 2012. Like all grand operas, it has larger-than-life drama, impressive staging, engaging characters and bold music reminiscent of epic movie scores.

No giant whales appear on stage. But at the final dress rehearsal, the prologue music signaled an momentous adventure to come. With clever projections of graphics, we in the audience were whisked aboard the whaling ship Pequod and found ourselves staring up at its towering mast. Projection designer Elaine McCarthy, who worked on Wicked on Broadway and New York City Opera’s Dead Man Walking, used drawings to also depict whaling boats; combined with a curved backdrop (that doubled as an inner wall of the Pequod) and images of waves, we witnessed the row boats capsizing and hunting whales. When Captain Ahab finally confronted his nemesis, the great white that caused his leg to be amputated years ago, the projected visuals were spine-tingling. Jay Hunter Morris, who plays Ahab, has perfected his peg-leg act; there's no trace of his left lower leg as he hobbles on stage.

Jake Heggie, who lives in Noe Valley, composed the sweeping and solemn score. Even at its most triumphant and optimistic moments--e.g., when Ahab leads his crew in a battle-cry for Moby Dick’s death, or when harpooner Queequeg and ship hand Greenhorn muse about retiring on Queequeg’s native island--it is tinged with sadness and doom. Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking, was commissioned by and debuted at San Francisco Opera in 2000, and has since been performed all over the world.

Moby-Dick was a co-commission of San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera and the State Opera of South Australia. Nearly all of the cast and production team in San Francisco’s staging also led the world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010. They include bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, a Samoan New Zealander with a mohawk and tattoos as the noble Queequeg, whose rich prayer chants open the opera; tenor Stephen Costello as the novice Greenhorn; and baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck, the Pequod’s voice of reason (and of course the source of the ubiquitous coffee café chain’s name). As cabin boy Pip, Talise Trevigne, the only woman in the cast, provides a welcome soprano break from the predominating deeper voices. Trevigne, a graduate of Los Altos High School, first considered a singing career after joining a student choral ensemble.

Tenor Morris was not part of the Dallas debut but sung as Captain Ahab in Australia and San Diego. He’s been acclaimed for his performances in the title role of Siegfried during the Ring cycles at San Francisco Opera in 2011 and the Metropolitan Opera in 2012, which is exactly the type of character that Ahab is. Utterly possessed, the captain is willing to sacrifice fortune, his entire crew and even “the last gasp of my earthquake life” to conquer Moby Dick--yet he shows glimmers of charisma and humanity. At one point, Ahab calls himself a “40-years’ fool” for having spent his life “making war on the horrors of the deep.”

The sparring between Ahab and moral-anchor Starbuck, and the friendship between Queequeg and Greenhorn (who gets the real-life lessons he asked for, and more) are the core of Gene Scheer's libretto, distilled from Melville’s 1851 tome Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Scheer says that half of the libretto came directly from the novel, which is about 600 pages, depending on the edition. There are grand lines such as “Human madness is a most cunning and feline thing” and “Is man’s insanity Heaven’s sense?”

Heggie and Scheer’s creation opera is both impactful and accessible. You needn’t have read the book before seeing the performance, which is like a great, three-dimensional Cliff Notes to the novel. And it may inspire people who couldn’t get through the book (like me) to pick it up again and appreciate the author.

FOOTNOTE:
Talks, concerts and other events through October 28, 2012 will supplement and dive into various aspects of Moby-Dick, both the novel and the opera. They include a UC-Berkeley panel discussion on October 11, featuring composer Heggie, librettist Scheer, and music and English professors, and a forum at the California Academy of Sciences on October 16, which will cover the opera's set design, Melville's documentation of contemporary science, and whale biology and conservation.

MOBY-DICK
San Francisco Opera
Oct. 10, 18, 30 at 7:30 pm;  Oct. 13, 23, 26 and Nov. 2 at 8 pm; Oct. 21 at 2 pm
In English with English supertitles
Runs about 3 hours (including one intermission)
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $22-$340

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