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Art&Seek on Think TV: Gene Scheer on Adapting Moby-Dick

by Jerome Weeks 23 Apr 2010 7:33 AM

Captain Ahab is certainly operatic in his inner turmoil and catastrophic ambitions. But what else about ‘Moby-Dick’ would strike a librettist, ‘Hey, that scene cries out for a great aria for soprano?’ We talk to Gene Scheer, the librettist of ‘Moby-Dick,’ about how novels may be better for adapting into operas than plays are and humanizing a madman. The Dallas Opera opens its world premiere of ‘Moby-Dick’ next week.


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The obvious question is, Why would anyone adapt Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, into an opera? The prospect is positively Ahab-ian in its mad ambition.

And don’t tell us, “Well, it’s a great story.” Lots of great stories don’t make great (or even good) operas. And they’re not 470 pages long and feature entire chapters devoted to “Cetology,” “The Whiteness of the Whale,”  “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whale” and other musical jewels.

True, the demonically driven Captain Ahab is a natural for an operatic character — he’s already Lear-like and Shakespearean, and Verdi, for one, had a habit of adapting those Shakespeare tragedies with larger-than-life protagonists into little musical shows you may have heard of (Macbeth, Otello). But other than Ahab, what, specifically, just sings out “opera” when you think of the Great White Whale? (And we don’t mean this guy.)

Gene Scheer’s work as a librettist is familiar to Dallas music lovers. His opera, Therese Raquin, received its world premiere from the Dallas Opera in 2001. It has since been performed in Montreal and London. His opera, An American Tragedy, debuted at the Metropolitan in New York.

And, of course, Moby-Dick has its world premiere next week from the DO at the Winspear Opera House.

  • Marilyn Augur

    I would like to know how much violence or other situations might be in the opera because I want to bring my 11 year old grandson. Could I get an answer here. I have tried calling the Opera offices. if you can call my number is [redacted]. Thank you.

  • Hi Marilyn,
    We’ll try to get an answer for you next week and post it here. Thanks for your comment.

    Anne Bothwell
    Director, Art&Seek

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  • Suzanne Calvin

    Marilyn, thanks for the question. From what I’ve seen, this is acceptable fare for an eleven-year-old. I would not recommend bringing a younger child as there is a certain amount of death and bloodshed (chiefly of the whale variety) but it errs on this side of PG13. You should also note that the first act runs about an hour and a half, so, if it’s a very active child unaccustomed to sitting still that long, you might reconsider. Having said all that, it’s an exciting piece with lots of action and dynamic music that should appeal to the heart of any boy.

  • Anonymous

    Suzanne, thanks so much for stopping by to answer Marilyn’s question. And Marilyn, let us know whether your grandson enjoyed the performance.