'Moby Dick' The Opera

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" hits the opera stage in Dallas. i i

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" hits the opera stage in Dallas. Karen Almond hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Almond
Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" hits the opera stage in Dallas.

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" hits the opera stage in Dallas.

Karen Almond

Composer Jake Heggie is best known for his opera based on Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking. The work, written in 2000, has become one of the most performed contemporary operas, and Heggie has also become a popular composer of songs for the likes of Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade and Audra McDonald. His latest work sets Herman Melville's words almost verbatim to music. Moby Dick was co-commissioned by the Dallas Opera and four other countries and will tour the world over the next several years.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Composer Jake Heggie is best known for his dramatic opera based on the book "Dead Man Walking." Heggie just premiered his latest opera based on a very different book, Herman Melville's epic novel "Moby Dick." The work combines 19th and 20th century musical styles with 21st century video effects.

Bill Zeeble of member station KERA reports on the Dallas Opera premiere.

BILL ZEEBLE: The Dallas Opera's artistic director Jonathan Pell says he was hot for celebrated composer Jake Heggie to write a work for the company's new opera house.

Mr. JONATHAN PELL (Artistic director, Dallas Opera Company): Now, the first thing when he said to me "Moby Dick," my first reaction was, hmm, does anything else come to mind?

ZEEBLE: Not really, responded Heggie, who insisted.

Mr. JAKE HAGGIE (Composer): And when he realized that this was the idea that I was deeply passionate, inspired by, it didn't take him long to come around.

ZEEBLE: Heggie convinced Pell he had some ideas for turning the epic novel into a navigable three-hour opera.

Mr. HAGGIE: It's a tremendous adventure story and it's got real human drama. It makes sense for people to sing rather than say these words, because the emotions are so huge, the conflicts are so large and so real.

ZEEBLE: "Moby Dick" starts quietly.

(Soundbite of music)

ZEEBLE: Brooding music conjures an uncalm sea. Video-projected stars shine against a stark night sky. Constellations morph into navigational routes, which become sailing charts and then form a ship.

(Soundbite of music)

ZEEBLE: Elaine McCarthy, whose credits include "Spamalot" and "Wicked," says she tried to match her projection design to the story.

Ms. ELAINE MCCARTHY (Projection Designer): It's a very poetic work, and if we went in there and made it, you know, a ship on the stage with a horizon line and a sky and the water, it would've just killed it.

ZEEBLE: So the stage becomes the ship deck with masts, harpoons and rigging. One of the more literal translations from the novel is Ahab's peg leg. Tenor Ben Heppner has to bend his left leg back while the stage crew ties it up, so it's hidden under his long coat with a peg attached at his knee. Heppner says there was no getting away from what for him is this opera's biggest challenge.

Mr. BEN HEPPNER (Tenor): It hasn't threatened to cramp, thank heavens. But when and I go out for that last entrance in Act II, that is with Morgan, Starbuck, and then I know from that moment on I'm on stage until the end of the opera, I'm thinking: Oh, boy, this is going to be difficult.

ZEEBLE: Heppner says the music was anything but. A favorite scene occurs in Act II, when Ahab almost gives up his chase for "Moby Dick."

(Soundbite of "Moby Dick")

Mr. HEPPNER and Mr. MORGAN SMITH (Baritone): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

ZEEBLE: Baritone Morgan Smith as first mate Starbuck, sings the duet with Heppner. The tranquil scene follows a rough storm before the action again turns turbulent.

Mr. HEPPNER: You could see the entire opera as kind of this storm, this character spinning out of control. Ahab's madness, descent into madness, Starbuck's descent into a world where everything is going against what he knows to be true and right.

ZEEBLE: The opera tells the story using Herman Melville's words almost verbatim. To a person, the singers praise Heggie's ability to turn that language into music. Heggie says "Moby Dick" forced him to work in a new way.

Mr. HEGGIE: The combination of the sweep and scope of Melville's language, the beauty of this story, the depth of the characters, all pushed me into a whole new realm of composing and thinking about what music is on a stage.

ZEEBLE: The Dallas Opera Company commissioned "Moby Dick" with four other companies. The work travels to Australia next year, then moves on to Calgary, Canada, San Diego and San Francisco.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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