By June Sawyers
“Call me Ishmael.”
Even if you have never read the novel, you know the sentence, one of the most famous opening lines in American literature. But Jake Heggie, the composer of Moby-Dick the opera had his own ideas on how to interpret Herman Melville’s iconic protagonist.
Melville’s Moby-Dick is an epic confrontation between humankind and nature, between so-called civilization and barbarity, between hubris as personified by the maniacal Captain Ahab and humility as embodied by the gentle Starbuck, the first mate. There is reason why the story lives on in countless adaptations. It is about the failed promise of America, on the one hand, and how friendship and kindness can save lives, on the other. Indeed, in Melville’s world, friendship comes in surprising forms. As Ishmael opines in the novel, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” The lyricism of Melville’s prose, the Shakespearean flaws and frailties of his characters—especially the Lear-like Ahab—and the overall biblical feel make it naturally operatic. So it is surprising that no one was brave, or foolhardy, enough to tackle it until Heggie.
And tackle it he has. Heggie’s opera received its world premiere on April 30, 2010, in Dallas, and its Chicago premiere, for two performances only, on April 25 and April 28, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
With 52 cast members, Moby-Dick is a massive undertaking. In just under three hours, Heggie and his librettist Gary Scheer have created the claustrophobic space of the doomed Pequod on stage—here suggested by a semi-circular set with a massive mast––while evoking the outside world using a vintage map set under a cluster of constellations. There are also great set pieces here such as the Nantucket sleigh ride sequence (the phrase refers to the dangerous ride that took place when a harpooned whale dragged the open whale boat at high speeds), created with harpoons and ropes.
In Heggie’s Moby-Dick, Melville’s young protagonist is simply named Greenhorn (a terrific Andrew Bidlack) for that is what he is when we first meet him as he prepares to ship out on the Pequod: Greenhorn is unformed, inchoate, a self-proclaimed “no one from nowhere.”
When the opera opens, the harpooner Queequeg (Vince Wallace, also terrific) awakens from a deep sleep, telling his new acquaintance that he is a prince who hails from the island nation of Kokovoko. After some initial hesitation, they become fast friends. Throughout the production, Melville’s words—or variations of them—float in the air; thus, Greenhorn possesses “a dark November in my soul,” which, he tells us, prompts him to go on a whaling voyage to see the watery part of the world.
We meet the rest of the crew: Pip, the innocent cabin boy (Summer Hassan); a cheerful and vibrant second mate, Stubb (played by the understudy Nick Ward); the pensive Starbuck, the first mate (a soulful Aleksey Bogdanov); and then, finally, Captain Ahab himself (Alex Boyer, appropriately moody, taking over for Richard Cox at the Sunday matinee performance).
There are small moments of camaraderie as when the crew yells in unison “A sharp eye for the white whale,” performing a dance of death of sorts that is ironically full of life with pounding feet and fists set to rousing music.
But Starbuck brings the proceedings screeching back down to earth when he reveals the true reason for the voyage: Ahab’s vengeance and determination to kill Moby-Dick since he lost one of his legs to the elusive white whale. Ahab is well aware of the foolishness and utter recklessness of his quest but he is unable, or unwilling, to change. He is “madness maddened.”
Starbuck is a veteran of whaling voyages himself who has left a wife and son back in Nantucket and as an experienced sailor of the seas he also knows that everything can change in an instant. “In one moment all the world is gone,” he says. He is trying to put the fear of Moby-Dick in Greenhorn. “Learn well Greenhorn to be afraid” even as Greenhorn admits to feeling “all alone in the world.”
Three months pass. The crew grows bored and angry, like men in war waiting too long for the battle to begin. In between there are some lighter moments as when Pip plays a tambourine and Stubb and the rest of the crew perform the traditional English naval song “Spanish Ladies” in a homoerotic dance routine before turning into a violent row.
The voices of the leading performers are something beautiful to behold, especially Bogdanov’s Starbuck. His booming baritone filled the theater with equal doses of humility and determination. Bidlack as Greenhorn is the epitome of moral rectitude while Wallace as Queequeg is pure joy and Boyer’s Ahab uncovers the man behind the bluster. The supporting cast is equally superb, from Ward’s Stubb, who lends the production some well-needed levity to Hassan’s gentle turn as Pip.
Heggie’s score is accessible, thrilling, and, at times, cinematic. The most beautiful musical moment comes when an offstage chorus sing a mournful song (“lost in the heart of the sea”)––lovely and haunting, poignant and stirring. Pip has gone missing and all seems lost. Worse, Ahab is now at his most determined, and deranged. “‘I’ll dismember my dismembered,” he roars, and then threatens to shoot Starbuck with a musket. In a subsequent, and moving, soliloquy Starbuck turns the tables and entertains thoughts of mutiny himself, pointing the musket at Ahab as the captain sleeps in his cabin, before changing his mind. “Now all of us are Ahab,” he admits, thereby sealing his own fate and the fate of his crew members.
During a moment of self-reflection in act two, Ahab opens up to Starbuck, lamenting the fact that he has spent 40 years at sea—and a scant three years on land, long enough to marry and have a son. But his young wife is more widow than wife, he confesses. It is an important scene that humanizes the often one-dimensional Ahab.
When, during the climax, Moby-Dick finally is sighted (“a hump like a snow hill”), the opera turns toward its inevitable and exciting, if woeful, conclusion.
After the entire crew––with Ahab at the helm––perish in the maelstrom of the sea, only one man remains. Greenhorn lies on Queequeg’s floating coffin under the starry night. “Who are you, lad?” asks Captain Gardiner, hoping it is his own missing son.
No, it is Greenhorn but only now he is able to give himself a name: “Call me Ishmael.”
Moby-Dick the opera was performed by Chicago Opera Theater April 25 and 28 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Music by Jake Heggie. Libretto by Gene Scheer. Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. Directed by Kristine McIntyre. Commissioned by the Dallas Opera Company. A new co-production with Utah Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, San Jose Opera, and Gran Teatre del Liceu.
Guest author June Skinner Sawyers is a writer and editor who has published many books on music and travel, including works on Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. June’s next book, co-edited with Jonathan D. Cohen, is Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen, to be published by Rutgers University Press on September 23, Springsteen’s 70th birthday. She is the proprietor of the Phantom Collective, a pub theater group specializing in history-based staged readings.