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Audio Files: A Conversation with Moby-Dick Composer Jake Heggie


by Jerome Weeks 17 Mar 2009

Talk about an Ahab-like pursuit. There’s still more than a year before Moby-Dick premieres next April as the Dallas Opera’s big gamble, after the company moves into the Winspear Opera House this fall. And Jake Heggie is not even near finished composing what he’s been working on for years. He started on the project with […]

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moby-dick-medium

Talk about an Ahab-like pursuit.

There’s still more than a year before Moby-Dick premieres next April as the Dallas Opera’s big gamble, after the company moves into the Winspear Opera House this fall. And Jake Heggie is not even near finished composing what he’s been working on for years. He started on the project with his librettist Gene Scheer two years ago (having talked about the adaptation with playwright Terrence McNally since the late ’90s). And then there’s a workshop this August in San Francisco that will give some shape to Scheer’s libretto (he previously collaborated with Heggie on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair).

With his opera still-aborning,  Heggie recently sat down to lunch with a group of area journalists to answer questions. He also talked about Dead Man Walking, which the Fort Worth Opera will present this May and which first brought the young composer international attention in 1998. Heggie will be on a panel with author Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, at SMU on April 23 to discuss “The Arts, Social Change and Human Rights.”

jake-heggie-and-prejean

Jake Heggie, Sister Helen Prejean and Terrence McNally

Some early items of interest about Moby-Dick (that Heggie expands upon in the audio clips):

– His adaptation will flip the famous beginning (“Call me Ishmael”) to the end — because it freed up the structure for the adapters.

– Heggie sees Ahab (to be sung by tenor Ben Heppner) as a more sympathetic character than the raging monomaniac of other portrayals.

– There will be one female role, played by a black soprano.

– Melville’s own “poetic” and “accessible” language will be used as much as possible and although sea chanteys will be evoked, the opera will not offer itself as “period music.”

– As for the big, obvious staging quandaries — how in the world will the opera handle Moby Dick himself onstage or the ‘Nantucket sleigh rides” (the small whaling boats pulled at high speed by the harpooned whale) or especially the final attack and sinking of the Pequod — Heggie would say only that he and Scheer “have to be very clear with our director and designer that what we need to do is write something that inspires us. Their problem is to find a way to make it work onstage.”

To learn about how others have staged the novel, check out my post, Moby-Dick: Some Stage History and a Suggestion

On Herman Melville, the writing of Moby-Dick and the novel’s initial reception:

On the continued relevance of Moby-Dick, the microcosmic universe aboard the Pequod and Ahab’s defiance of the larger universe in trying to control it:

On playwright Terrence McNally (the librettist for Dead Man Walking) originating the idea for the opera of Moby-Dick, his having to drop out due to illness and how the production came together:

On staying true to the spirit of Melville but not necessarily true to exactly what he wrote. What flipping the book’s beginning and ending means for Ishmael:

On using Melville’s language (unlike Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which uses very little of it):

On finding the right musical language:

On why there is one female role:

On the complexity of Ahab — as opposed to the stock character seen in the film versions — and why opera may be the perfect vehicle for this book, not only that, why operas need stories like Ahab’s:

On how the show will suit the Winspear Opera House, the Dallas Opera’s ambitions and Heggie’s own skills and inclinations:

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  • Marcus De Chevrieux

    I am trying to identify the sourdce of the dramatic Moby Dick image used in this post. It appears all over the internet, but no one seems to know where it originated. Can anyone help? it is important for a project I am working on.