Los Angeles Opera is about to give the LA premiere of Moby-Dick, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of the Melville classic. Here’s my essay for the program:
“It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree…,” Herman Melville wrote in a letter on May 1, 1850, his first recorded reference to Moby-Dick. He would go on to transform the riveting adventure story from which the novel had been seeded into a metaphysical epic — just around the time that Richard Wagner began expanding his treatment of a mythic hero into an unprecedented four-part project, aka Ring cycle.
“Melville’s novel is mythical and timeless: that’s what makes it operatic,” says composer Jake Heggie. “But to make it work onstage, we had to find a way to make it very human and tangible.” And for Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, crafting “the most famous book people claim they’ve read without reading it” into (just one) normal-length opera required an intensely collaborative effort that involved still more shifts of focus.
Heggie recalls being initially “terrified” by the audacious proposal to make an opera of Moby-Dick. The idea originated from the veteran playwright Terrence McNally, the librettist for Heggie’s debut opera, Dead Man Walking (2000) as well as the just-premiered, bel canto-styled Great Scott. “The only story I’m interested in doing is Moby-Dick,” McNally said when asked to participate in a commission from Dallas Opera in 2005 for a work to inaugurate the new opera house it was building.
Despite — or, more accurately, because of — his trepidation, Heggie soon found the idea irresistible. “As a composer it’s important for me to take on a new challenge that will keep me on edge. If I’m going to write an opera and invest years in it, it has to be a subject that stimulates me. With Moby-Dick I began to think, ‘I can do this, but I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ Every day became a big guessing game.”
The composer also found himself reassured by his confidence in McNally’s theatrical instincts. The playwright proposed three essential premises that set the coordinates for the dramatic adaptation: the entire opera would take place at sea, Captain Ahab would be a heldentenor, and his cabin boy Pip would be cast as a pants role to introduce a female voice among the otherwise entirely male cast.
About a year into the commission, personal reasons forced McNally to withdraw, and Heggie turned to another seasoned man of the theater, the highly versatile writer and composer Gene Scheer. The two had collaborated on some other projects, and Scheer had already adapted another complex American epic for the medium of opera with his libretto for Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy.
“The process became very organic for us,”says Scheer. “There was no linear sequence of first libretto, then music.” Indeed, when I met with the team over the summer for this interview, just after the world premiere of Cold Mountain — Scheer’s most recent operatic adaptation, set to music by Jennifer Higdon — the collaborative spirit came so naturally that they frequently completed or supplemented each other’s sentences.
“What makes our partnership operate so well,” Heggie explains, “is that both of us are really about the work. It’s not about our egos. We’re eager to shape the piece so it feels clear and fully formed and solid.” He adds that the same holds for the entire team who designed the look and staging of the show, which premiered in Dallas in April 2010 (director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, among others): “It’s important to remember that the success of the opera was a group effort.”
“Every opera is, but with these folks there was a sense that we were handing the baton back and forth to each other,” says Scheer. “I do believe the music is the marrow of the matter, but we all worked together to make sure everything here is about telling the story.”
In addition to jettisoning the early chapters that take place on land and keeping it all at sea, perhaps the most critical decision about how to retell Melville’s story was to change the novel’s narrator Ishmael into the character “Greenhorn” — which is to say, into an earlier, more innocent incarnation of this character, the only member of the Pequod’s crew who has never been on a whaling expedition before. The fundamental conceit is that the experiences Greenhorn encounters in the opera are what he will ultimately transform into a kind of “memoir” by writing Moby-Dick.
“We knew we couldn’t have the narrator as a character, so with this rookie Greenhorn it became an opera about the education of Ishmael,” according to Heggie. “The novel’s famous opening line would become the last line of the opera, and it would have to be earned.”
This line of thinking profoundly informed the opera’s dramatic and musical conception alike. A signature of the sound world Heggie has created for Moby-Dick is its tautness, its intense economy: variety is extracted from the ingenious manipulation of a network of leitmotivic ideas. And chief among these is a rising-then-falling four-note motif of elusive, shifting harmonies. This idea, heard right at the outset, is threaded obsessively throughout the score.
Heggie recalls the uncanny experience of composing the opera’s final page, when he suddenly realize that this motif was “spelling” the phrase Greenhorn sings to the unseen Captain Gardiner at the end: “Call me Ishmael.” “I didn’t know until the end that this is what these notes were saying all along.”
The function fulfilled by the narrator in the novel was meanwhile transferred to the orchestra. Says Heggie: “The orchestra itself is the character of the sea and the world that surrounds everyone on the Pequod. The hard part of any opera is finding what I call the musical universe that is specific to that piece. Once you find that sound world, the characters can emerge organically with their own identity. It feels of a piece so that the audience also feels as if they’re in that watery world that’s carrying them forward.”
The result is that Moby-Dick is the composer’s most intricately scored operatic score to date. This and the prominent motivic network — much more than the obsessive Ahab or the maritime setting — lend the opera its Wagnerian echoes, which are otherwise uncharacteristic for Heggie. Trained early in his career by the legendary Ernst Bacon (who also mentored Carlisle Floyd), Heggie is widely known as a gifted melodist. Yet the material of Moby-Dick led him to assimilate some unexpected influences: “I had probably been resisting all my life: Wagner and Philip Glass. That surprised me, but it felt right for this piece.” Other more usual suspects the composer mentions that get stirred up in his “creative crockpot” include Debussy, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (to whom the score is dedicated), and “the great movie scores i grew up loving.”
Both Heggie and Scheer agree that what really launched the project was a trip they made together to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, just after they’d finished working on their first full-length opera collaboration, Three Decembers (2008). “Being in that environment and walking those streets made it very real,” recalls Heggie. “We had dinner with [maritime historian and Melville champion] Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book about the event that inspired Melville [In the Heart of the Sea] made it so human.”
Scheer says the images they encountered of the specifics of life on a whaling expedition — the nocturnal rendering of the oil, the way the mastheads loomed up above the ships — immediately inspired some concrete ideas for the libretto, such as the duet between Greenhorn and Queequeg at the start of the second act.
His own growing obsession with the Melville source contributed incalculably to the libretto’s sense of authenticity. Re-reading the novel nearly a dozen times, Scher internalized its peculiar rhetoric and steely poetry. While virtually all of Ahab’s words are taken directly from Melville’s text, the libretto incorporates passages that are entirely new, but in the style of Moby-Dick. Heggie proudly points out that several Melville scholars have admitted being unable at times to unravel “which lines are from Moby-Dick and which from Gene. It’s a real testament to the quality of his work.”
But Moby-Dick was by no means all smooth sailing. After a six-month immersion in writing music, Heggie felt that “nothing was sticking” and jettisoned most of his sketches except for the music to Queequeg’s opening chant, the text for which Scheer had unearthed from an authentic Samoan source. His musical breakthrough arrived when he focused his attention on Ahab’s first-act aria “I leave a white and turbid wake” and finally found his way into the opera’s central, most complex character. “Ahab suddenly became real to me, and then I was able to go back to the beginning and write straight through.”
Scheer hit a brick wall of his own in the scene with Queequeg’s coffin in the second act. “I wrote so many versions of that scene — as a chorus, a duet for Pip — it was eight weeks of hell. There was a lot at stake, because we had to establish the coffin for the ending and to show the education of Greenhorn taking place. And then I met with Jake and Lenny [Foglia], who was so helpful acting as dramaturg and letting us bounce questions off him, and we cracked it together. I was able to write it then in one night.”
Winnowing Melville’s massive text into a feasible libretto hardly became a matter of mere “cutting.” In fact, Scheer savvily conflated events and characters (as in the rescue of Pip) and even invented scenes to reintroduce important themes from the opening chapters — most notably, the bonding and affection between Greenhorn and Queequeg, which represents this opera’s love story. As for the novel’s notorious excursions on the industry and techniques of cetology (and their allegorical implications), Scheer admits with bemusement that “the whaling stuff ended up becoming my favorite parts of the book.” He even found room for a reference to this material as a background to the initial private confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck in the first act.
“When most people hear the words ‘Moby Dick’ they think of the White Whale that bit off Captain Ahab’s leg — and of Ahab’s rage for revenge,” writes the Melville scholar Robert K. Wallace in his book Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century. “When most people see this opera, they will be equally concerned with Queequeg, Starbuck, Pip, and Greenhorn.”
One of the opera’s most prominent achievements is to create distinctive personalities, in real stage time, for each of its cast of seven principals. Scheer says he was motivated by his understanding of each of the characters as embodying “a different way of looking at the world. Ahab is maniacal, but he’s inspiring and brilliant and gets almost everyone on that ship to follow him. Starbuck brings a religious perspective, along with the rigidity of religion which is also part of the story. Stubb represents someone who laughs his way through life and Flask is a simple-minded person who doesn’t think so deeply. Queequeg is equally poised between all of these characters. And Greenhorn is culling through them all. Ultimately he admires Queequeg’s way of looking at the world because it has more validity and resonance for him.”
Heggie continues the analysis: “Starbuck is the conscience, while Queequeg is the heart and soul, the spiritual center of the ship. Pip is the tragedy and the youthful optimism that gets quashed. He represents the future.”
Narratively speaking, transforming Moby-Dick into an opera involved a kind of creative reverse engineering to make the adventure story from which Melville had taken off front and center. At the same time, the original novel features passages imbued with a heightened, “operatic” intensity or even allude directly to music. By incorporating these into their treatment, Heggie and Scheer ensure that the opera’s streamlined narrative is by no means “lightweight” but rather richly textured.
“The subtlety comes in many forms,” says Scheer, “but it comes principally in the music. Not to underemphasize the importance of the structure and the words, but in the end the music provides a direct way of communicating that is different and wonderful.”