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Moby-Dick premieres in Dallas

Before its premiere at the Dallas Opera on Friday night, “Moby-Dick,” by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, seemed like a dubious proposition. A long novel full of philosophical exegeses, its action largely limited to a group of men living on a ship for months and months, didn’t seem like the best candidate for a work of musical theater (although Britten, of course, did something similar with “Billy Budd”). Furthermore Heggie, the composer who had a public success with “Dead Man Walking” and has struggled since, is generally thought of as somewhat lightweight.

Surprise. “Moby-Dick,” though not perfect, turned out to be one of the most satisfying new operas I’ve seen premiered. And while new work is often seen by audiences as more a duty than a pleasure, the opening-night crowd in Dallas broke into spontaneous applause three times during the first half, and screamed and yelled its approval at the curtain calls. It was a wonderful and rare reminder that new opera truly can excite people if it’s done right.


Manning the whaling boats, as projected by Elaine McCarthy. (Karen Almond/Dallas Opera)

The Dallas Opera certainly did right by this one. The casting was stunning -- I’ve seldom heard such a uniformly strong cast -- and the production (directed by Leonard Foglia) was smart and theatrical, making excellent use of high-tech video projections (by Elaine McCarthy), mainly of white-on black architectural line drawings of the ship Pequod at different angles, or evocative footage of the roiling ocean. The material sets (by Robert Brill) mainly consisted of ropes and ladders and sails, with a descending platform on the back wall that helped define different spaces on the ship. For all its size, the production felt elegant and spare; the stage pictures were slightly abstract, yet there was never any question about where you were. This was opera as theater, calculated to work dramatically on stage. Would that we saw more of it.
(read more after the jump)

There’s something to be said for experience. Both Heggie and Scheer have clearly learned something from plying their trade over the years. Heggie’s music can be a little facile, a little derivative: references in this piece range from Glass to Puccini to Britten. It also has a slightly anodyne quality, lulling the listener with through-composed pleasantness, in spite of Patrick Summers’s spirited, committed conducting. However, Heggie can write very well for the voice, a trait all too rare among many living composers. Scheer, too, has a lighter side; some of his rhymes verge on jingles. However, these factors were much less apparent than in earlier works by either artist: “Moby-Dick,” unlike many new operas, has come out of the gate as a solid piece of work, ready to stand or fall on its own merits. (It will have a chance to do so; co-commissioned by a consortium of opera houses, it will have at least four more productions, starting in 2012 in San Diego.)


Heppner as Ahab (Karen Almond/Dallas Opera)

And there’s something to be said for casting. In the central role of Captain Ahab, Ben Heppner gamely hobbled around stage on a peg-leg, communicated the character’s manic obsession so as to make credible his crew’s veneration and fear of him, and sounded the best I’ve heard him in years (despite a couple of near-cracks). His counterweight was the book’s narrator, here called “Greenhorn,” a young callow first-time sailor searching for his own identity. Stephen Costello’s clear, lighter-weight tenor seems to be developing beautifully; he sounded much firmer and more authoritative than when I’d last heard him, and got through a huge evening of singing -- Heggie makes considerable demands of his leads -- with aplomb. Ahab’s other foil is Starbuck, the first mate who keeps trying to reason with him, to no avail (each nearly murders the other). This was sung by Morgan Smith, a baritone with a strong mid-weight voice and acting ability whom I will be looking out for in future.

Stereotypes can work better in opera than in other forms. The requisite grizzled old salt, Mr. Stubb, pipe clenched between his teeth, was sung by Robert Orth, who succeeded in making his character a beloved comic figure in short order and led the local-color-providing sea-chanties (the chorus was also very strong). The requisite pants-role cabin boy, Pip, provided the welcome leavening of a female voice and the luminous soprano Talise Trevigne, who actually brought conviction to her tambourine-wielding, merry character and his subsequent insanity. Trevigne managed the feat of singing gorgeously in a scene when Pip, lost at sea, sings suspended some 20 feet in the air, struggling to keep his head above water, out of sight of land, surrounded by evocative projections of the roiling ocean: one of the scenes the audience greeted, at its end, with spontaneous applause.


Pip (Talise Trevigne), lost at sea. (Karen Almond/Dallas Opera)

Scheer also created a brilliant beginning, and a brilliant end. The opera’s first scene opens with Queequeg, played by Jonathan Lemalu, making ritual invocations in a foreign language and a dark, deep, almost other-worldly voice, chanting among the sleeping bodies of the other sailors in the hold. Finally “Greenhorn” protests he can’t sleep and gets up to talk to him: an arresting start that made you want to hear more, and established who the characters were without too much gratuitous exposition. Lemalu brought authority, vocal richness, and even the right ethnicity (he is of Samoan descent) to the part, acting as a kind of moral compass standing slightly apart from the other crewmen.

[SPOILER ALERT] Strong endings are an art of their own; and here, Scheer showed impressive mastery. One irritant for many was that the young protagonist was alled “Greenhorn” rather than Ishmael, underlining the character’s rawness, lack of roots, and lack of identity (which “Greenhorn” elaborates on in a duet with Queequeg, singing of wanting to go to his island and learn new names for things, and for himself), but seeming to disregard the book’s most famous opening line. Then comes the final scene: the Pequod has gone own with all hands, and “Greenhorn” is drifting atop Queequeg’s coffin in the open ocean. A passing boat spots him, and its captain (Jonathan Beyer), who has contacted the Pequod before, asks him from offstage who he is. “Greenhorn” raises himself from the coffin, there is a long pause, and suddenly you see where this is going. “Call me Ishmael,” he sings: the last line of the opera. The narrator has found a name for himself; and this is where his subsequent narration -- the book, written after the fact -- begins. After the excitement attending this premiere, it may be a beautiful beginning for “Moby-Dick,” the opera, as well.

Edited to add: Reviews of "Moby-Dick":
Scott Cantrell in The Dallas Morning News
Gregory Isaacs on TheaterJones.com
Steve Smith in The New York Times
Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal
Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle
Wes Blomster on OperaToday.com
George Loomis on The Classical Review (he also wrote in The Financial Times, but I can't link to it)
William Littler in The Toronto Star
Brian Holt in Out West Arts

By Anne Midgette  |  May 3, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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Comments

Having been impressed with Dead Man Walking in Baltimore 4-5 years ago, and having been more impressed with Stephen Costello as Gounod's Romeo in Baltimore more recently, this is a production that I desperately wanted to see, but I couldn't make time in my schedule to be in Dallas this week. Thanks for the informative review, Anne; I'm going to look up succeeding productions of this.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | May 3, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

And by whom is Jake Heggie “generally thought of as somewhat lightweight”? By you? By you and by the Washington Post staff of music critics and attorney-music critics? In the decade since the powerful premiere in San Francisco of “Dead Man Walking,” I have never heard Mr Heggie, or read of him, being described as someone “somewhat lightweight.”

Are you and the Washington Post trying to start a rumor as to the professionalism and talent of Mr Heggie – he who was commissioned to compose, at a relatively young age, new American classical operas for at least two of America’s greatest opera companies – the San Francisco Opera Company and the Dallas Opera Company; and starring some of the most highly distinguished American vocal artists?

Is it because he was not – like Rufus Wainwright or Nico Muhly -- directly commissioned to write his first American opera for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, rather than by a leading ‘regional’ American opera company, that you deem Jake Heggie to be “somewhat lightweight”? (The charge of being "somewhat lightweight" was also, I recall, initially leveled by some at Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and John Adams.)

As for struggles, from what I understand, many composers after successful first operas struggle to meet national and international expectations.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 3, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime1: Among the other critics who didn't like Jake Hegge was Alan Rich, who called "Dead Man Walking" an "appallingly second-rate assemblage of musical gestures." That's not to say that I agreed with Alan but Anne isn't alone in her sentiment.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | May 3, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

snaketime1- I know your duties reminding Congress of their obligations vis a vis the DC Opera occupy most of your time, but Heggie most certainly is considered a lightweight by many critics (and others, including myself). His latest stage work 'Three Decembers' was savaged as poor cabaret, whilst 'The End of the Affair' disappeared very quickly after its Houston premiere. I maintain that 'Dead Man Walking' wins over audiences through the power of its story, not its music.

It appears however that he is really coming into his own for writing for the voice, which may have come from his pseudo-apprenticeship with Frederica von Stade. And despite my distaste for his music, I am always thrilled when any new work is successful and I hope that Heggie has many more commissions and successes to come.

To extend your final sentence a little further- excluding 'Three Decembers' which was more song cycle- this is Heggie's third full length opera. Verdi was just starting to hit his stride with 'Nabucco'. Puccini was 'Manon Lescaut' and by any count Mozart was still a long way from hitting his operatic talents. I think one of the struggles with new opera is composers may only get one shot at it- when almost every major opera composer took at least a handful of staged works to really start to master it.

So Bravo to Heggie, one of the very few living composers who's been able to grow with the form, and here's to many more.

Posted by: ianw2 | May 3, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime1: While your past comments have demonstrated your ability to look up the work of critics who agree with you, you seem unable to use the same research skills to locate those who dissent. Check out reviews by Tommasini, Rich, Holland, Swed, to name a few off the top of my head, for examples of other critics who have criticized Heggie as something of a light-weight.

The tone of your comments remains a problem. I get direct e-mails of complaint from readers about you, and you've driven some of them off altogether. You have a lot to say, but you often make it so unpleasant, and lard it with so many personal attacks, that it ends up simply crushing debate. I’m perfectly willing to read comments from people who disagree with me or don’t like me; I would love this blog to be a forum for true debate, and for as many different opinions as possible. It is even possible to disagree and still have a stimulating discussion. (After Tetzlaff's recent account of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a close colleague of mine and I learned that the very elements I hadn't liked were the ones he particularly responded to, though we'd construed them slightly differently. The discussion certainly enhanced my thinking about the performance, even though neither of us changed the other's mind.)

What you offer, though, is not debate. If you see something you don’t agree with, you counter with a vitriolic blast of attack, all guns blazing. I admire your passion, but I bet you can find a way to express yourself that would sound a lot more intelligent and win you more readers. An example: a far more effective way for you to defend Jake Heggie would be for you to explain why it is that you like his music (I, for one, would love to hear a strong defense of him), rather than simply launching into me because I must have some hidden agenda, and be an evil person, since I inexplicably fail to agree with you.

If you can’t learn to present your disagreement in a more acceptable way, and stop the personal attacks, I will ban you from commenting further on this blog, as editors at the Post have long advised me to do. Consider this your final warning.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | May 3, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I stand by my comment in full, and stand ready to take the matter to the Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander.

You did not say “generally considered by music critics to be fairly lightweight.”
You said “generally considered to be fairly lightweight” without defining “generally” -- as if the American and international opera-going publics were being included, as well as were music critics.

Of course, Mr. Heggie’s subject matter in “Dead Man Walking” – rape and murder of the young and capital punishment by lethal injection -- was and remains highly controversial in America today – just as regicide on the operatic stage was controversial at the time that Verdi composed “A Masked Ball.” I found the delayed SFO broadcast and the recording to be very powerful from a musical and dramatic point of view, and easily the equal musically of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” and Philip Glass’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” – to cite two examples of new American operas from about the same period. Members of my family were highly moved by the SFO stage production.

And yes, I was vaguely aware that Jake Heggie’s (and Gene Scheer’s) chamber opera “Three Decembers” which featured Frederica von Stade as an aging mother unable to accept her son’s homosexually as well as other dysfunctional family matters, was not well reviewed by Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Heggie’s Graham Greene opera “'The End of the Affair'” slipped my mind earlier. It has been produced in Houston, Seattle, Madison, and Kansas City, and is scheduled to be produced by Opera Pacifica, the Pittsburg Opera, and the Sydney Opera. The opera was based upon the work of Los Angelos Times Best Play of the Year prize-winning playwright, but first-time librettist, Heather McDonald; who either now teaches – or taught – at George Mason University, in Virginia.)

John Adams third stage work (following the criticism from some that greeted his and poet Alice Goodman’s second opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”) with poet June Jordon, “I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky” was a similar cabaret style chamber opera to “Three Decembers,” which also failed to find wide critical or public favor. Big deal. John Adams has gone on to become composer-in-residence with the National Symphony Orchestra and virtually the nation’s Composer Laureate.

Now that it has the Washington Post’s approval, I hope that Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby Dick” will be staged by the Washington National Opera in an upcoming season.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 3, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Just curious as to why you accept anonymous or pseudonymous comments at all. I never have and never will. A newspaper doesn't run an unsigned letter to the editor. NPR doesn't read unsigned letters over the air. In fact, news media confirm the authorship of letters, and also choose which ones to run based in part on what they actually contribute. People can and will have disagreements with critics and critics will have them with each other, but it's all irrelevant without signed names.

Your "friend" should just go start his/her own weblog. You could sell tickets: I'll hold back the crowds.

Andrew Patner
Chicago Sun-Times
WFMT Radio Chicago and wfmt.com

Posted by: rentap | May 9, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Sir --

The Washington Post music critics know my identity, as do the relevant Washington Post ‘editors’. I have had a half dozen signed letters to the editor published in the Washington Post over the past 32 years, in addition to featured letters to the editor (accompanied by large Washington Post illustrations), and a featured, in-depth editorial on cultural economics and policy in the Nation’s Capital, for which I was paid by the Washington Post. Topics of these signed letters to the editor and editorials ranged from Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” to the proposed new home for the Washington National Opera and the now suspended Kennedy Center expansion plans.

For five years I maintained a highly ranked, nearly daily weblog on international cultural and cultural economics issues which received tens of thousands of hits.

None of this signed letter writing activity to the Washington Post nor weblog activity prevented the Washington National Opera from abrogating its promise to the American people to stage an American opera every season; or the Washington Performing Arts Society from stripping all American and contemporary programming from its distinguished visiting orchestra series.

In the past two years, I do feel that I have impacted both the resumed classical music programming of public classical radio in the Nation’s Capital; and, at the margin, the now generally excellent programming by the National Symphony Orchestra, under Rita Shapiro and Nigel Boon (and now the musical leadership of Christoph Eschenbach), which puts WPAS orchestral programming to shame.

My tone here in this forum has at times simply mimicked the often very rude tone of two members of the Washington Post music staff. In my opinion, it is they who on occasion should have been blocked from publication by the editorial staff (if such a staff, in fact, now exists).

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/11/AR2010031105289.html

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 10, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

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