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Dallas Opera’s ‘Moby-Dick’ Debuts Spectacularly – UPDATED LINKS

by Jerome Weeks 1 May 2010 5:08 PM

It was quite a gamble to take on Herman Melville’s lengthy, literary classic, but it has paid off handsomely for the Dallas Opera and composer Jake Heggie. ‘Moby-Dick’ makes gripping musical theater, with a magnificent production reinforcing the opera’s dramatic power. Olin Chism reviews. Plus Bill Zeeble’s report and the most complete set of links to other reviews around the country.


Dallas Opera‘s  world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick has wowed the audience and critics. KERA’s Bill Zeeble attended the opening and has more.

  • KERA radio report from Bill Zeeble:
  • Online report:

Triumphant was the word from several critics. They praised the music of composer Jake Heggie and the adapted story by Gene Scheer, as well as the sets, imaginative video projections and singers’ voices. Audience member Donna Wright was excited to see her first opera premiere, and was impressed by it all.

Donna Wright, audience member: “The singing, the effects, how they managed to do so much with basically the same set. Oh it was great.”

Fort Worth Symphony pianist and music educator Buddy Bray says the opera stayed true to Herman Melville’s masterpiece. Bray says Moby-Dick was huge and effective on all fronts.

Buddy Bray: “Yes, totally worked for me because it was big and beautiful.”

Bray calls Heggie a natural.

Bray: “I think when he’s writing one note, he already thinks about what he is going to write that will play out an hour later. So he’s always thinking of a big arc. He is the real thing. He is a genuine opera composer. And this country has very few of them, and he just knows instinctively how to do that.”

Guest blogger Olin Chism reviews:

With Dead Man Walking, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer proved decisively that they know how to fashion a large-scale musical drama. On Friday night at the Winspear, the Dallas Opera gave the premiere of their latest collaboration, Moby-Dick. It was quite a gamble to take on the American literary classic, but it paid off handsomely. Moby-Dick makes gripping musical theater, with a spectacular production reinforcing the opera’s dramatic power. At the end the enthusiastic audience gave Heggie and Scheer their heaviest applause.

Herman Melville’s novel is lengthy (approaching 500 pages in my copy) but it’s easy to spot candidates for trimming to operatic size. There are many, many pages devoted to whale lore, anatomy and behavior, not to mention lengthy descriptions of sailing and whaling as they existed in the mid-19th century. These would hardly do in an opera. But the easy trims still leave a herculean task for the librettist trying to arrange the remainder into a coherent whole, and one impressive thing about the new opera is Scheer’s success in doing so. There is some tinkering with details, but by and large the libretto remains faithful to Melville in plot and tone.

Heggie’s music makes the story spring to vivid aural life. The composer is well known for his conservative lyrical impulses (no grating on the ear here), but there’s grit in dramatic scenes and he fashions a brooding musical atmosphere that seems a fitting complement to story and setting. I particularly liked the orchestral writing with its colorful instrumentation. The vocal writing seemed apt, too, though few solo numbers jumped out as obvious high points. Repeated hearings are needed.


Moby-Dick has a topnotch cast. The headliner is Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab (above). He seemed vocally stressed at times on Friday night, but he remained a formidable presence. Morgan Smith as Starbuck (the one character with a grip on reality) was superb, as was Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg. Talise Trevigne as Pip and Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (Scheer’s name for Melville’s Ishmael) were notable among the rest of the large cast. Patrick Summers led a powerful orchestral performance.

phpfrvb3dPMThe physical production is simply magnificent. A whole team of designers, animators, projectionists and programmers creates a high-tech world that keeps the sea a brooding presence and gives the opera’s climactic moments an almost physical power. Leonard Foglia is the impressive director, with Robert Brill, Jane Greenwood, Donald Holder and Elaine McCarthy as designers of scenery, costumes, lighting and projections, respectively. The others involved are too numerous to list.

  • Scott Cantrell’s Dallas Morning News review
  • Associated Press review by Ronald Blum
  • Steve Smith’s New York Times review
  • Front Row review by Wayne Lee Gay
  • Theater Jones review by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
  • Out West Arts blog
  • Opera Warhorses blog
  • Fort Worth Renaissance blog
  • The Classical Review blog
  • Gary Cogill’s review for WFAA (with video)
  • Chris Shull’s review for Opera Now magazine
  • Chris Shull’s review for
  • NYU Professor Cyrus Patell’s blog
  • San Diego Theatre Scene review
  • Interchanging Idioms blog
  • Albert Imperato’s blog at Gramophone. UK


Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie (l to r). Photos by Karen Almond.

Moby-Dick will continue through May 16, with Madame Butterfly joining in starting May 7.