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Behind the Scenes: 'Moby-Dick'

February 18, 2012 8:11 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes at the San Diego Opera to talk with set designer Robert Brill.

Related Story: Behind The Scenes: 'Moby-Dick'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The opera "Moby Dick" kicks off it's west coast premiere on Saturday. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando went backstage to find out how one brings a whaling ship into the San Diego Civic Theater.

MOBYDICK (ba).wav 3:59 (music out at 3:59)

TAG: The San Diego Opera's production of "Moby Dick" will have four performances over the next week and a half at the Civic Theater.


The opera "Moby Dick" takes us aboard a whaling ship in search of a white whale. A crew for such a ship was about 3 dozen.

RON ALLEN: We have a cast of 40 chorusers, a singing group of about 9 solo artists, 10 acrobats, and 5 regular supers... so we got enough on stage to fill basically two whaling ships. (:12)

Go back stage at the San Diego Opera to find out what it takes to bring Ahab and company to the Civic Theater. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes to the high seas coming up next on Morning Edition.

Ten days ago the Civic Theater stage was abuzz with activity.

RON ALLEN: Controlled mayhem.

Ron Allen is director of production at the San Diego Opera.

RON ALLEN: We are putting together the set for "Moby Dick" on the main stage. There are flying ladders that come in and track on and off; we have a trap that comes up during the thing; we have projections at the same time so there's quite a bit going on.

Allen and his crew are essentially bringing novelist Herman Melville's famous whaling ship the Pequod into the theater so audiences can join Captain Ahab in his mad pursuit of Mody-DIck.

ROBERT BRILL: It's a big canvas on stage.

Robert Brill designed the set for the opera.

ROBERT BRILL: But it's a canvas that has to hold actors, that they climb on, that they climb 40 feet into the air... and the staging of it I think make it a really ambitious design to install.

More than 50 people unloaded 5 trucks and worked on the set. That's almost twice as many people as one would find would find on a real whaling ship. The opera crew worked from 8am to midnight for 3 days to get the massive set up and working, says Allen.

RON ALLEN: The curved wall is 45 feet tall it goes back about 42 feet and it's about 75 feet wide so it will fill out that whole stage pretty much.

Those massive walls are versatile elements in Brill's clever set design. He and director Leonard Foglia did consider doing something on a less grand scale.

ROBERT BRILL: Could we streamline this, could it be smaller? And at the end of the day you think you're doing "Moby Dick ."

Brill's challenge was to bring more than just the Pequod on stage.

ROBERT BRILL: ... What does it mean to put the universe on stage, what does it mean to put the entire ocean on stage? A lot of ideas come up... where you are just throwing crazy ideas out like should the stage be covered in water, oh no that's a bad idea, let's not do water because that's what's the most expected.

That's why Brill is so good at what he does. He doesn't reject the notion of covering the stage in water because it's difficult or unreasonable but rather because it's what's expected. That's an attitude he fostered while working here in San Diego at the experimental Sledgehammer Theater. So Brill delivers the unexpected.

ROBERT BRILL: ... Eventually we arrived at the idea of this floor surface that was both floor and wall that could be traversed by the chorus and the supers and that could be many things.

It could be the deck of the ship or serve as a screen for projected images of the ocean and of a 3D, computer rendered image of the ship, a ship that feels like it's coming right into your lap. The set proves to be simple, elegant, and at times breathtaking. It smartly mixes the abstract and the real as it takes audience members on both an adventure and a philosophical journey.

ROBERT BRILL: I think we're just giving enough to take them on that journey and they really have to go the rest of the way with it.

Unlike a movie where CGI can create anything in vivid detail, Brill asks audiences to fill in details with their own imaginations, which makes them active participants in the production. Brill's set also incorporates a spider web of rigging for the chorus to climb and interact with. It not only gives them something to do but it helps create the illusion of being on a ship.

ROBERT BRILL: Lenny and I would have this conversation a lot about how much is too much and so the rigging of the ship seemed to be the thing that if we used it in the right way could be the most beautiful thing to look at.

The set design plays beautifully into the lighting and the costumes and most importantly the performances. But productions like this are expensive and couldn't be done without companies across the country working together says Ron Allen.

RON ALLEN: The production itself costs 1.1 million that was divided amongst the five different companies so our portion of it was 233,000. And then we added about another 2 million dollars of our own costs to put the show up that's hiring the cast, the orchestra, the chorus, all the stage hands.

But it's a small price to pay when you are in pursuit of that elusive great white whale Moby-Dick.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.