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Getting 'Moby-Dick' opera up and sailing

Tenor Ben Heppner and composer Jake Heggie discuss the challenges of bringing Herman Melville's American classic to San Diego's Civic Theatre.

February 14, 2012|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • San Diego Opera is staging "Moby-Dick."
San Diego Opera is staging "Moby-Dick." (Karen Almond )

Reporting from San Diego — — Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is a versatile performer, but Tinker Bell he's not. Yet this mountain of a man will be flying as Captain Ahab in San Diego Opera's West Coast premiere of the opera "Moby-Dick." The production sets sail Saturday at San Diego's Civic Theatre.

At a recent rehearsal of the new opera by Jake Heggie — who made a splash with his first opera, "Dead Man Walking," in 2000 — the imposing Heppner was standing at the back of a cavernous rehearsal space in the Civic Theatre complex, wrapped in ropes and leaning on the cane that is part of the costume package for Captain Ahab, whose wooden peg leg replaces the limb bitten off by the great white whale in Herman Melville's sprawling 1851 novel.

But, during a brief rehearsal break, director Leonard Foglia casually pointed out that Heppner would not be standing but suspended above the stage during the actual performance.

"I'm about 15 feet in the air," said Heppner, who created the role for the world premiere in April 2010 in Dallas. "I spend someone else's aria hanging up there, as well as my own. It's about six minutes." Did Heppner know before he was cast that the story would land him midair? "I did not," the tenor replied calmly. "Although, when I looked at the score and saw that Captain Ahab says: 'I will go up to the masthead and sight Moby Dick,' I thought, I'm wearing a peg leg. How exactly am I going to do that?"

What it came down to for Heppner was blind trust — and the excitement of being part of something new, even though during each performance "the leg that is not pegged goes through hell and back" as Heppner navigates on one foot. That's really why everybody involved ended up on Ahab's whaling ship, the Pequod — even though, according to composer Heggie, setting sail on any opera production is always a trip on the good ship OMG.

For soprano Talise Trevigne — the only female cast member among the Pequod's rowdy 67-member crew in the "pants role" of Pip the cabin boy — the motivation was Heggie's music. She called it contemporary yet accessible. "He writes from the soul," she said. 'I saw a tweet: 'It's the "Avatar" of opera.' I like that."

Even if this work weren't based Melville's tale of man versus white whale, the whale metaphor is always appropriate when talking about building an opera. In a telephone interview, the San Francisco-based composer explained that, unlike a stage musical that benefits from weeks of previews, an opera's opening night really is opening night. "By the time it premieres, it feels pretty much shot out of a cannon," Heggie said.

Pre-rehearsal in San Diego, Foglia, an established theater director, said the production includes a lot of high-tech excitement, including multimedia projections and acrobatics. That also brings risks, he said. "We have the ability to do so much now, knock on wood," he said. "But it's live. And it doesn't work if somebody tripped over the plug, you know what I mean?"

But Foglia, who also directed "Dead Man Walking" and Heggie's "Three Decembers" and "The End of the Affair," still prefers new opera. He also prefers directing new plays to revivals. And luckily, this opera has a few well-received opening nights under its belt: "Moby-Dick" represents a co-production of five opera companies: Dallas Opera, the State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera, San Diego and San Francisco Opera, where the boat docks in October.

It's not just the whale theme that makes this opera big. Dallas Opera artistic director Jonathan Pell called on Heggie to create an opera to open Dallas' new Winspear Opera House. It was "not just a new American opera house, but a bold one — it was going to be red, and it was going to be downtown, with architecture that really made a statement," Heggie said.

Heggie turned to playwright Terrence McNally, librettist for "Dead Man Walking." He was startled when McNally said the only opera he wanted to do was "Moby-Dick. "I got really scared by that, but then I realized it was really a great place to start. There is instant name recognition, and there really wasn't an definitive version out there in terms of film or stage." Pell took some persuading, but eventually he too was on board.

McNally had completed successful cancer treatment before production began, but by then had already withdrawn as librettist, to be replaced by another Heggie collaborator, Gene Scheer. The creative team immediately turned the story upside down by ending, rather than beginning, with the iconic line: "Call me Ishmael." "We want to treat the story actively in real time, not with narrator," Heggie said. "Our character, named Greenhorn, is the survivor that years later will write the book. It freed us up enormously to create the events that would later inspire the author."

One other thing: No boat. That is, instead of building a big wooden whaler to rock on the stage, the stage itself becomes the deck. "We needed an abstract vision for the piece — plus in the whale hunt, if we had little boats on wheels rolling it around, I think it would have killed it. It takes you out of the story," Heggie said. Joked Foglia, "We always knew this wasn't going to be 'The Pirates of Penzance.'"

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