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A Whale Of An Opera

"Moby-Dick" premiered at The Dallas Opera in 2010. The opera makes it West Coast premiere this weekend at San Diego Opera.
Photo by Karen Almond / Courtesy of The Dallas Opera
"Moby-Dick" premiered at The Dallas Opera in 2010. The opera makes it West Coast premiere this weekend at San Diego Opera.
Jake Heggie composed the opera "Moby-Dick"
Gene Scheer is the librettist for "Moby-Dick" Jake Heggie composed the opera, "Moby-Dick"

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. An undertaking almost as huge as the great white whale itself is about to open at the San Diego opera. The Herman Melville classic, Moby-Dick has been reimagined as an ambitious opera. Translating the grand themes of the novel into music and bringing the ocean to the stage of the civic theatre are just two of the challenges faced by the creators of Moby-Dick, and I'd like to introduce them to you. Jake Heggie is -- composed the opera, Moby-Dick. Welcome to the show. HEGGIE: Thank you, Maureen. Great to be here. CAVANAUGH: And Gene Scheer is the librettist. Welcome. SCHEER: Great to be here. CAVANAUGH: Jake, the first question has to be, why make an opera of Moby-Dick? The reason I ask, it's not a book that necessarily makes one think of opera immediately. HEGGIE: It might not be a book that makes you opera, but it is innately operatic. CAVANAUGH: How so? HEGGIE: The things that work for an opera to me are a vast inevitable landscape and intimate human journeys that are affected by that. And if you think of Aida, which we think of a grand opera, it's very intimate, but in a grand setting. And the setting of the sea, are the inevitability of what we don't know is above us or below us, and within the heart of the person next to you, that's all in Moby-Dick. So those operatic themes spoke to me, and also the music of the sea. It seemed innately musical. And it had as an idea for an opera several things going for it. First of all, instant name recognition. CAVANAUGH: Right, yes. HEGGIE: Even if you've never read the book, you have a sense there's a white whale, and there's this obsessed captain with a peg leg, right? [ LAUGHTER ] HEGGIE: And that works to the advantage of an opera-going audience. Our job is to give you an evening where you don't have to have read the book. You don't have to know anything about it. You can just go and experience this tremendous adventure and journey in the ocean and through the cosmos with these amazing characters that Melville created. So it spoke -- I was terrified by it when it was suggested as an opera. But the more I thought about it the more I realized it is not only a timeless classic great story, it has innately all the elements of opera. It asks all the big questions. It's a big meditation on the most important issues in life. And from that perspective, it just seemed natural to go there. And I knew that the musical world for it would be there but the hard part would be distilling it into a coherent libretto that told a story that you could follow in one evening over three hours total, you know? And going from that 800-page novel into a 60-page libretto, and that would take a very special person. Once we found that, I knew the music would be there. CAVANAUGH: So Gene is really the one who should have been terrified. [ LAUGHTER ] SCHEER: I was! CAVANAUGH: You have the crucial role of translating this novel, brilliant but densely written novel, into a libretto. How did you approach that? SCHEER: Well, the first thing is to understand that opera is different than a novel, and that you need to distill it into an operatic form, and have the courage to be merciless in cutting out what doesn't work for the operatic stage. So for example, Jake and I made the decision to cut basically what happens on land, this whole journey that you'll see on stage is set on the ocean. And that required finding other solutions for how question questioning and Ishmael meet. It was ultimately done to be faithful to the spirit of the novel, and the best way to do that was to utilize what opera can do as opposed to what a novel can do. HEGGIE: Right. Novels are about so many words that conjure emotions and images. And opera, music has to do that job sometimes. SCHEER: So my real task is to write text that inspires Jake to write music. Ultimately, it's an opera, ultimately it's music that's carrying the emotional message. So the words are in a way sort of the scaffolding. I'm not under estimating the importance of language. And one of the assets of the book is that the language is gorgeous. And only Shakespeare wrote anything comparable in terms of the lushness of the language. And it's interesting just as a note that Melville had just read for the first time deeper read Shakespeare, and he was inspired by King Lear. It was right around this time that he was on fire by the inspiration of Shakespeare. And you can fell feel that in the language that -- I almost said Lear, that Ahab offers up. It's very King Lear like. And the character of Pip is very much like the fool. Then the question is how to distill it down into a dramatic setting where decisions are being made, where action is happening in real-time. What you don't want to do in an opera is tell a story. You want to show a story. CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to have our listeners hear some of the music inspired by those words. This is the scene where captain Ahab walks onto the stage. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: That is just a bit of the new opera, Moby-Dick. That's the scene where Captain Ahab walks onto the stage. Of one of the interesting things about this, at least to me, reading about it, Jake, is that all of the principles are men except one woman, Pip, right? HEGGIE: Yes. In the tradition of the theatre and especially in opera, very often young boys are played by sopranos because if you have a cast full of mature voices up there to cast an actual boy, A, their voices change, they're not reliable. And we would have gotten into amplification and miking, and if you mic one person, you have to mic everybody. And that defeats the point of opera. Of so you have a great tradition of that through Mozart, through handle, through Verdi, and even into the present day. CAVANAUGH: How does that change your options musically? HEGGIE: Oh! It opened up a whole new world! Because not only did I have the full spectrum of all the men's voices but then with a soprano, we had the full spectrum of all voices because we have the lowest to the very highest. And the great thing about it too is no matter what Pip sings, you know who that character is. CAVANAUGH: Yes! [ LAUGHTER ] HEGGIE: You can tell immediately am oh, that's the cabin boy. SCHEER: We were also blessed with a fantastic singer who's playing the role here. And she's just a spectacular talent and just holds the stage beautifully. HEGGIE: The cast here is out of this world. It's almost entirely the original cast. Ben Hefner created the role of Ahab, Morgan Smith was Starbuck. The new one on the block is Jonathan Boyd who's playing the role of green horn who becomes the character Ishmael at the end of the opera. But we have a wonderful conductor and crew, and the visual production is so spectacular, and what's very moving about that visual production is they waited -- the whole design team waited until they really heard the score so that it's completely integrated. They waited until they heard the entire score before they designed or decided anything. So what you see is so organically integrated into the music and the libretto, we -- we were both in tears. SCHEER: We were blown away when they presented it to us in New York, we were just overwhelmed, because these are difficult challenges to overwhelm for a design crew and director. HEGGIE: Yeah. SCHEER: And they just managed to create boat rides, these hunts on the ocean that are just -- visually just magnificent. HEGGIE: These video, and these computer generated graphics that are three dimensional that just blow your mind. When they actually go on the whale hunts in the whale boats, the transformation, the audience in Dallas the first time they saw it, they burst into applause. They couldn't believe it! CAVANAUGH: Beth Accomando will have a future on the set declaration of the production. That's going to be on evening edition tomorrow night. But one thing I want to ask you about, and that is you have your poor tenor hanging, right? In mid-wear? [ LAUGHTER ] HEGGIE: Our soprano and our tenor. Of the role of Pip, there's a scene where Pip is lost at sea and is suspended from a wire hanging across the stage at about 25 feet up and going from one side of the stage to the other while singing one of the hardest songs of the night. And Ahab is hoisted aloft about 25 feet above the stage, and sing this is raging storm aria from up there. It's really amazing. There are also Arias and duets where the singers are way up in the rigging of the ship that goes way up toward the presenium. SCHEER: The director said to us is imagine it, let me figure it out. So we were free to do things that were outrageous, and yet he found solutions. HEGGIE: He's a brilliant director. He's a Broadway director who has directed now several of my operas and was with us from the beginning on this piece. And his design team including Robert Brill, the stage designer who has a production of Jesus Christ, superstar coming to Broadway. And lane McCarthy's lighting and projections. It's really a first-class team to create a visual spectacle that not only enhances but also helps to tell the story. SCHEER: That's the thing. HEGGIE: And it's a really complete operatic theatrical experience. CAVANAUGH: Not only did you recreate the novel and make this a visual experience, but of course it's a musical experience. And let's hear how you imagined the sound of the ocean. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: That's lovely. That's from the orchestral prelude to the new opera, Moby-Dick. It makes he want to hear more and more. HEGGIE: Oh, thank you. CAVANAUGH: I'm wonder, what's the collaboration like between the two of you? You're both very chatty. [ LAUGHTER ] HEGGIE: We're not at a loss for words. CAVANAUGH: And it sounds as if you have your own strong ideas on what should be -- how do you work together? SCHEER: It's a collaborative process all the way through, it's my job to come up with sort of a first draft of how things will -- could play out. Then it soon becomes a back and forth as we discuss, you know, the best way to distill the story. And so from the get-go, Jake and Lenny and I talk about different ways of distilling the story. And also when Jake starts writing the music, the music will take him in different direction, so a new text is needed frequently. HEGGIE: Sometimes the music too will give us information that we hadn't thought about a character. So we have to do rewrites on a certain character or certain elements of them. More than anything, it's great fun. And there's a lot of back and forth and collaboration. And what I love about the theatre is the collaboration. You're never completely alone. But the main thing with both -- with the way Gene and I work, it's all about serving the drama. It's all about telling the story. We check our egos at the door, we have to be wide open to ideas that aren't our own, that come into play, and that we develop together so that we're really serving the story the best way possible and not interfering with that. Because our egos are getting in the way. And he's that kind of collaborator. SCHEER: The only question is does it work? Does it work in terms of telling the story? And whoever came up with the idea -- I can't even remember who came up with which idea at this point. HEGGIE: Right. CAVANAUGH: Moby-Dick opens on Saturday at the San Diego opera and runs through February 26th. Thank you both so much. SCHEER: Thank you. HEGGIE: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

The great chase for the most famous of white whales now gets the opera treatment. "Moby-Dick", a co-production of San Diego Opera, The Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, The State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera, makes its West Coast premiere this weekend in San Diego.

Composed by Jake Heggie ("Dead Man Walking") with text by librettist Gene Scheer, the opera first premiered in Dallas in 2010 and is based on the classic Herman Melville novel of obsession. It's the tale of one man's search to find and seek revenge on the elusive whale that destroyed his boat and left him with one leg. The large-scale production takes a literary classic and makes it contemporary through the use of multimedia and video projections in the set design, creating an opera for 21st-century audiences.

KPBS-FM talks to the opera's composer and librettist about the creative process involved in translating Melville's masterpiece from page to stage.


"Moby-Dick" opens Saturday at the San Diego Opera and runs through February 26. For more information, visit