Challenging 'Moby Dick' crafted into spirited opera
The critical and popular acclaim that has greeted Jake Heggie's opera “Moby Dick” shows there are special rewards for tackling the difficulties of converting a long novel into a compelling theatrical experience.
Heggie was encouraged to make Herman Melville's famous novel into an opera by Terrence McNally, his collaborator on “Dead Man Walking,” which Pittsburgh Opera staged in June 2004. After McNally withdrew from the project for health reasons, Gene Scheer created the libretto.
The result is “a great American opera,” says Pittsburgh Opera's music director Antony Walker. “It has a lot of themes we deal with today, such as the nature of God and nature of humanity, interpersonal relationships, conscience and obsession. Also, Ahab is an incredibly charismatic leader who manages to enlist the help of the crew with his own personal obsession by trying to make it theirs.”
Pittsburgh Opera will present the Pittsburgh premiere of Jake Heggie's “Moby Dick” at four performances March 17 to 25 at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center.
Heggie's “Moby Dick” was premiered by Dallas Opera in 2010 but Pittsburgh Opera will present a new staging it co-produced with Utah Opera, where it debuted in January.
Roger Honeywell, lauded for his performance as Captain Ahab in Salt Lake City, will sing it again at the Benedum Center. He says the opera's success starts with Heggie's score.
“Jake's wonderful music gives so much subtext to the character and through line,” he says. “There's so much breadth and forward movement that's unrelenting.”
He also loves the tessitura of his role.
“There's a lot of mid-range singing with impassioned high notes throughout,” he explains. “Jake has great ability for word setting that does make it feel like everyday speech. You almost forget people are singing at times.”
Honeywell adds that Ahab is a very internal role because he's a tortured character, and that librettist Scheer has brought everything into tight focus.
“I think it's an amazing night in the theater,” he says. “I don't think there's any moment in the opera that doesn't work.”
Tenor Sean Panikkar returns to Pittsburgh Opera to sing Greenhorn (Ishmael in the novel). Although “Moby Dick” is a classic American novel, and many people say they've read it, he wonders how many actually finished it and understood it because it's so long.
“It's 135 chapters or so. What I love about this opera is that it condenses everything into something that's manageable,” he says. “It gets to the core of the story without going through all the minutia in the novel. There are chapters and chapters just about the details of whaling that make the book a very challenging read.”
Panikkar's character is the narrator, an observer, which isn't to say he's static.
“He starts in a very dark place,” says the tenor. “He's very cynical and thinks of religion as something to make everybody's life miserable. He meets this Polynesian guy Queequeg, who he at first thinks of as a cannibal and crazy. But over the course of the show their relationship develops, from Queequeg teaching him about whaling to becoming almost a spiritual mentor. At the end Greenhorn's floating on a coffin made for Queequeg and starts reciting his prayers.”
Panikkar praises the “really gorgeous music” Heggie wrote and unequivocally declares “Moby Dick” one of the best modern operas he's heard.
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.