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Awaiting World Premiere of Moby Dick

Jake Heggie (© Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera)

Quick—from the following list, pick the noun that does not belong:

Jake Heggie - Angry whales - Herman Melville - Landlocked Dallas - Captains with wooden prostheses

Sorry—it was a trick question; they all belong. That’s because American composer Jake Heggie’s latest work, an opera after Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, is set to have its world premiere in April of 2010 at The Dallas Opera (in a city which geographers agree is decidedly landlocked).

Heggie recently visited Dallas Opera to meet with the company’s administration and to give a report on his progress. The composer of Dead Man Walking has been hard at work on the opera but took some time to talk with us about the project. After countless hours before board members, donors, media and the public, he still breaks into a wide smile when he talks about the piece that has consumed him for the last few years.

The beginnings of Moby Dick:

When more than a decade ago renowned playwright Terrence McNally presented Heggie with a list of ideas for a potential operatic collaboration, Heggie knew their partnership might be the start of something special. And it was—the chosen one from the list, a work after Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, became one of the most successful contemporary operas in recent memory. Set aside but not overlooked, however, was an opera after Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick.

The story piqued Heggie’s artistic curiosity like few others, but he wanted to wait; while Dead Man Walking wasn’t exactly an emotional walk in the park, the composer felt that Moby Dick demanded an even greater musical and psychological intensity that he wasn’t quite ready to explore. For Heggie, the grandiosity of Moby Dick does not just lie in its setting, but also in the internal strife of the characters. “It’s a very bold project, it’s a very nervy project,” said Heggie. “But the story is right for me as a composer on many levels—it speaks to me musically, there’s great psychological development, the characters and their relationships are complex, there’s a lot of confrontation as well as release. The emotions that people are feeling seem larger than life. They are intimate stories within a huge landscape with larger forces at work.”

Almost ten years and several operas later, Heggie was still waiting for Moby Dick—that is, until Dallas Opera artistic director Jonathan Pell came calling with a proposal: a world premiere in the company’s inaugural season at the Winspear Opera House. Heggie knew it was time. “Dallas is moving into a brand new opera house with new technical facilities and possibilities that we didn’t have twenty or thirty years ago,” commented the composer. “Now is a time when we can do a piece like Moby Dick and stage it effectively.”

The librettist:

Things did not turn out as planned, however. While the idea of another Heggie/McNally opera proved tantalizing, life got in the way: McNally was forced to pull out of the project due to health problems, leaving the text and timeline of the premiere in limbo. Heggie was not about to give the libretto reins to just anyone. “It’s a rare thing, finding a good librettist—poets don’t work, novelists don’t work. The best people have been either playwrights or screenwriters, or have some success at both but are real theater people and know things change and turn on a dime… The last thing the public will listen to is the music, so you have to make sure the other things are not as much of a struggle so that people can be open to the musical ideas.”

Enter Gene Scheer, composer and dramatist in his own right. Scheer (who penned the libretti for Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin and An American Tragedy) seemed like a perfect fit for the project. Heggie praised Scheer’s knowledge of both stage and voice, but knew that Scheer needed not only to create a viable libretto from a complicated text, but to construct a work that could give Heggie himself inspiration. “Ultimately, not only does the libretto have to tell the story clearly and allow for what opera does—which is explore things through music—but it has to inspire music—and until it’s at that point, I can’t do my work.”

Gene Scheer’s libretto has done plenty of inspiring, it seems. Heggie has already finished the first act of the opera after receiving its libretto in July of 2008; he is working on the second (and final) act, which he hopes to have finished by June of this year. After that, the cast (which includes, among others, Ben Heppner as Ahab, Stephen Costello as Ishmael, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, and Patrick Summers as conductor) will convene in San Francisco in the Fall for a workshop with Heggie, Summers, and Leonard Foglia (who will direct). Heggie hopes this will give the production crew enough time to figure out how the singers will interact on stage and will also serve as a progress marker for the cast itself. “Singers need months and months to learn the music and to get it in their bodies so they can perform it naturally and without fear. The difference between hearing a singer who has learned something in a month versus hearing it six months later when it’s really part of them is immense.”

On working with Melville’s texts:

“Melville scholars will probably be upset—we have to cut like crazy,” admitted Heggie. “But if they step back and look at the spirit of what Melville was writing about, they’ll see we were very faithful to it.”

The language itself has proven to be a welcome challenge for both Heggie and Scheer. Those who admire the lyricism of Melville’s text will not be disappointed. “We still use a lot of Melville’s ravishing, gorgeous language, which I found remarkably accessible to set,” remarked the Florida-born composer. “It’s so poetic and beautiful; some moments come right from the book and work really well, like when Ahab seduces the ship to join him on the quest. Several of those moments are culled directly from Melville and some culled from Gene’s imagination.”

The composer and librettist have developed a system of interaction that, despite their distance, has been productive. “The process between Gene and me is that we talk about who the characters are, what their voice types are, where the individual threads are. Then he starts writing, sends it to me, I mark it all up, and send it back. I’ll write words that get across the idea of what I’m looking for—sometimes I’ll say I need a bridge right here, or to take this or that out because I can say all of it with music.”

Above all, though, the psychological and musical demands of Moby Dick are what have driven Heggie. When he speaks about the characters, it becomes clear that Heggie’s research started long before he was officially offered the commission by Dallas Opera; an introspective glaze covers his eyes while he thinks about the best way to speak for these characters who for so long have been speaking to him. “Ahab, for example, is not a villainous person,” says Heggie. “He’s a deeply flawed, wounded man who doesn’t even himself understand why he’s compelled to do this. He just knows he has to, even if everyone dies along the way.”

Diving into each character not only inspires Heggie musically but gives him the very foundation he needs to make them come alive. It is not Dead Man Walking, and it is not Three Decembers, musically or theatrically. “This is a different musical language for me,” he asserts. “The hardest part for me in the creation of a big theater work is asking ‘what is that musical sphere we’re all going to dwell in, out of which those characters will introduce themselves musically and in which they will live?’ There is something so remarkable about this ship that is constantly on the water. Above, we don’t know how high we’re looking; below, we don’t know what’s there—all you have tangible is right here, and even then you don’t know what’s going on inside that person. Musically, it gave me an interesting palate to explore—things that are happening in that undulating middle ground.”

The music of Moby Dick:

“There are some naturally musical things in the book,” Heggie notes. “The sea, or the wind, or—an amazing sound described by many whalers at the time—when they were sleeping, if they were near a pod of whales, they could hear all the clicks through the hull of the ship, and it sounded like hammers on the side of the boat; or the sound of Ahab’s leg on the deck; there are so many natural percussive sounds.” But it’s a different Heggie sound, he says—“I still think it sounds like me—it’s lyrical, but it’s much denser and more complex than anything I’ve written… I really feel like it’s a broader palate, and I’ve certainly been able to explore vocal ranges like I’ve never been able to in this piece. It’s still me, but it’s a different version... I can’t even try to write like I did ten years ago, or even last year. I’m in a totally different mindset now.”

Talking to Heggie, you see that it’s not just his musical mindset that has matured, but also his entire approach towards opera. The wunderkind of American opera is all grown up, and with his maturity has come a perspective on his craft that escapes many of his colleagues. Heggie understands what opera requires to be successful, not only musically but theatrically as well. He gets that all the “other” parts of the operatic machine have to function flawlessly if the music is to speak to the audience. Yet at a basic level, he is still a musician—when asked if the press would have access to the Moby Dick workshop, Heggie closes his eyes and draws his arms in, as if to clutch something. His response? A shake of his head that says “no,” and the words “At this point, my music is like an unborn child—it needs protecting.”

For Jake Heggie, Moby Dick isn’t just about creating a world premiere for Dallas Opera or about fulfilling the expectations the music world has for him—it’s about fulfilling his own expectations as a musician and a composer. He knows what he is capable of, the work he has put into the process, and how it represents the culmination of an idea first created more than a decade ago.

And what about his attitude? Well, you can decide:

“I’m so lucky to do this for a living,” he says with a smile, “to have the privilege and honor of being able to work on this level with these amazing, extraordinary people. This is what I love. It’s what I’ve always dreamed about doing.”

Operagoers will get to live Jake Heggie’s dream when his opera Moby Dick takes the stage on April 30th, 2010 at The Dallas Opera’s new home, the Winspear Opera House.

Dallas, March 6, 2009

Paul Wooley



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