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We Seek the White Whale – Tonight

by Bill Zeeble 30 Apr 2010 8:06 AM

It’s big, it’s wet and it sings. And no, it’s not tenor Ben Heppner in the shower. Dallas Opera’s world premiere of ‘Moby-Dick’ finally opens tonight, and reporter Bill Zeeble susses out some last-minute bits of scrimshaw. Yes, that’s a Hebrew version of the book over there.


Tonight, opera lovers and critics from around the globe take their seats in Dallas’ nearly sold-out Winspear Opera House. They’ve scored tickets to the world premiere of the operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. The story of the great white whale is well known. But those involved with this opera aren’t saying much about how it will all come together. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports.

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Every world premiere offers surprises. That includes celebrated composer Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. What will it sound like? This tiny piano snippet is all we know. How will the huge character of Captain Ahab be portrayed on stage and through voice? And, some have joked, “Where will you put the ship and all the water? And what about that giant whale?”

Leondard Foglia: “I can tell you, five days before the premiere, I don’t know yet.”

Leonard Foglia is Moby-Dick’s director and frequent collaborator with Heggie, best known for the opera Dead Man Walking.

Foglia:  “It’s less about secrets than it is , you know, on Friday everyone will know and then I’ll probably find out on Friday too what I finally decided on. It’s, it’s um, it’s a little scary. It’s changing every day. I just literally changed an entire set about an hour ago, and today we changed it all and we’ll try a new one tonight.”

That was a few days ago. Foglia says the elements are there. He just keeps re-arranging some of them. From the start, he told Heggie to compose the music he wanted to write, without worry. He’d make it work. So, for example, Foglia has but eight brief bars of music to stage the sinking the whaling ship the Pequod. Heggie welcomed the freedom Foglia offered, as he welcomed this musical challenge. He says Moby-Dick is perfect operatic fare, bursting with big ideas, conflicts and characters in life and death situations.

Jake Heggie: “I don’t want to take on something where I feel totally safe. I want to feel confident, but I don’t necessarily want to feel safe. I want it to push me and I want to grow as an artist and as a person, especially for a project that’s going to take four to five years of my life. This was what I felt passionate about. This is what I wanted to do.”

Heggie, who’s 49, says frequent collaborator and Texas-born friend Terrence McNally first planted the seed for Moby-Dick. So when Dallas requested a new work for the Winspear’s inaugural season, Heggie chose the Melville classic. He thinks it’s a great fit for the Dallas Opera.

Heggie: “They built a brand new American opera house with vision and with guts and with beauty and a sense of adventure. And I felt like that’s the kind of piece that needed to be done in the inaugural season as a world premiere. Something very brave, something bold and adventurous with vision. And Moby-Dick fills that bill.

The company’s artistic director Jonathan Pell is already sold. He calls Heggie the greatest melody writer since Puccini, the Italian master, and believes even for those unfamiliar with opera will love it.

DSO Artistic Director Jonathan Pell: “The best thing I can say – people around the theater are humming the tunes.”

Like almost everyone else, Pell also doesn’t know how this will all come together. He repeats the Moby-Dick mantra – “You’ll have to wait for tonight.” That’s when we may also discover if the most famous three-word opening line in American literature – “Call me Ishmael” – even gets heard.