Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: A Bright Future for Heggie’s Magnificently Melodious “Moby Dick” – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 2012

October 25th, 2012

San Francisco Opera is the third American opera company (after those of Dallas and San Diego) to mount Heggie’s extraordinary opera “Moby Dick”. I first reviewed the world premiere in Dallas [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010]. I was also present at the first performances in the opera’s San Diego run [see A Majestic West Coast Premiere for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2012].

San Francisco is the fifth city in which the opera has been performed [see Another Opera House Conquered: Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012] with the longest  scheduled run (eight performances) of any of the five companies that co-produced the work.

I attended the fourth of the San Francisco performances, which provided me with further insights into a work which I believe will become an American standard.

Broadway, Hollywood and Moby Dick

There are several reasons why I believe “Moby Dick” paves the way for a new era of American opera (which could help generate new interest in certain worthy American operas of the past). The opera skillfully takes an American epic novel, which is distilled into a sympathetically drawn, dramatically valid libretto.

The production is staged by Broadway professionals, who, utilizing the latest in computerized projections, assure a fast-moving, absorbing theatrical experience.

Most important of all, the opera is composed in a melodic structure, whose principal melodies could be successful as key musical themes for two American institutions that never lost the taste for accessible melodies: cinema soundtracks and musical theater.

There are probably “purists” still that might be horrified at the opera’s accessibility to the wider public (although I confess I have not yet come across them in the audiences of the four performances of the work I have attended). But it the United States is a world center of creating accessible music for popular culture, why should not the music in American opera be accessible to a wider public as well? Why shouldn’t opera be part of popular American culture?

[Below: Captain Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, left) stands on deck with his first mate Starbuck (Morgan Smith, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Symphonic Structure of Ahab’s Music

Like the world premiere performances in Dallas, those in San Francisco are authoritatively conducted by Patrick Summers, the conductor most closely associated with Heggie’s operas.

Only a few moments into Heggie’s score, a beautifully sweet melody, that invests much of the music surrounding the character of Ahab, builds in the orchestra. The symphonic score of the work has the sweep and majesty of the orchestral scores we associate with contemporary blockbuster movies, especially the cinema “franchises” such as Howard Shore’s music scores for the trilogy of films that make up The Lord of the Rings.

[Below: Stephen Costello is Ishmael, known throughout most of the opera as the Greenhorn; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

High-budget projects have, indeed,  invested in the kinds of appealing melodies that  some mid-20th century operatic works deliberately avoided. Many of these movie scores, including Shore’s, have an “operatic” feel and contain a melodic structure that would seem to lend itself to opera.

Ironically, Shore was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera to write the music for a new opera (“The Fly”), but, rather than investing it with such luxurious melodies as he did with Into the West from The Return of the King, the music he wrote for his opera seemed imitative of the avant-garde music of John Cage (not, as I far as I have observed, something opera audiences are seeking), rather than his own beautifully crafted melodic style for cinema.

[For my comments on Shore’s opera, see: Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008. In my estimation, everything that the creative team for “The Fly” did wrong, the creative team for “Moby Dick” did right.]

Starbuck and the American Musical Theater

There is yet another segment of the American entertainment industry that welcomes accessible, melodic music – American musical theater.  The principal melody associated with Starbuck and the agony Starbuck feels as first mate to Ahab has much in common with the melodies of the Broadway musical.

[Below: Robert Brill’s sets for the “whale oil rendering vats” of the Pequod; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The “Moby Dick” Sets

If there has been surprisingly little cross-fertilization between opera and the musical and “legitimate” theater we refer to generically as “Broadway”, that is not the case between opera and Broadway stage direction and set design. The stage direction by Leonard Foglia and sets by Robert Brill show theatrical skills honed on Broadway.

[Below: the masts of the whaling ship Rachel, searching for its captain’s lost son, come into view, as, from left to right, Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris), Pip (Talise Trevigne), Stubb (Robert Orth), Flask (Matthew O’Neill) and Starbuck (Morgan Smith) gather on deck; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Opera’s Potential for Long-term Success

As has been often repeated on these pages, virtually every opera every written in the entire history of the genre has failed to retain a place in the performance repertory. Most of the core repertory, I have reiterated, premiered during the 140 year period between Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in 1786 and Puccini’s “Turandot” in 1926 [See my original article on this subject: Expanding 1955’s Standard Repertory.]

Seven years after that commentary, I have become optimistic that change is in the air. It is my belief that Heggie’s “Moby Dick” points the way to new entrants into the standard operatic repertory.

[Below: Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, center) holds a Spanish gold doubloon which will be the reward for the crewman who first spots the White Whale as Starbuck (Morgan Smith, left) and Pip (Talise Trevigne, right) look on; wedited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production and sets have travelled to each of the American cities (and to Adelaide, Australia and Calgary, Canada) in which it has played. The United States casts, excepting the Ahab and Greenhorn roles, have remained together for all U. S. performances. Even though the San Francisco Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris, was not the original Ahab, he now has performed the role more than anyone else.

The multiple performances in the five cities, allowing the opera to be “reset” four different times after the world premiere – even the cast changes in Calgary and Adelaide – provide the kind of performance base that entices opera managements to consider mounting the work. Out of this extensive exposure to English speaking audiences on three continents, it is clear the opera has impressed those audiences.

The five opera companies that shared the expense for the commission and which introduced the opera to five quite different audiences have assured that the worthy work received enough performances to attract the attention of other companies.  I have good reason to be confident that opera companies beyond the original five have committed to mounting the opera in future seasons.

Should “Moby Dick” surface at an opera company near you, be sure to pursue it!




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