By Spicer W. Carr
Utah Opera always searches to do classics, and you can’t get much more classic in the American cannon of literature than Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The time-tested tale of revenge between man and beast is the ultimate American thriller from the high seas. The piece has been adapted for the screen and stage several times, but none of these adaptations seem to have the same impact that the 2010 opera has had. Commissioned by The Dallas Opera for its inaugural season, Moby Dick has since captured the minds of audience members with its ingenious storytelling, its exquisite music, and its unlimited potential to garner masterful performances from actors.
Originally, the opera was meant to be a project between American composer Jake Heggie and esteemed playwright Terrence McNally. But, due to health concerns, McNally had to drop the project early on and the incomparable Gene Scheer was brought on instead to write the libretto. Scheer’s libretto has been described as ‘abstract’ while also retaining a good portion of original text from the book. Written with the original production in mind where the new facilities and technology of the Winspear Opera House were at the production team’s disposal, it has proven difficult to remount the production. But director Kristine McIntyre, in this brand new production staged by Utah Opera, intends to fix that notion with this brand new production by utilizing traditional techniques of theatre and presentation to prove the work can be performed by all opera companies. Lovingly described as a ‘nerd’ by her cast and production staff, McIntyre has been quoted to have re-read the novel at least seven times for this new production, drawing inspiration from the original source to help tell the story. This research has helped McIntyre further elaborate on the question “What kind of a man was Ahab?” and “What kind of a journey are the crew on?” Beaming behind her glasses, McIntyre cheerfully responded at a press round table, “All the crew are in a floating cult. This is a voyage of the damned.”
Such a heavy topic in a libretto would prove hard for most composers to set, but Heggie’s music not only accomplishes this but raises the bar for composers and proves his salt as a storyteller. When asked what sound world an audience could expect, the conductor Joseph Mechavich simply replied, “The world is Heggie. The sound is unmistakably Heggie.” Though Heggie admits the likes of Sondheim, Bernstein, and other American giants influenced his creation of the work, most involved in the production will tell you the music you will hear is an entirely new sound only identifiable to Heggie. The use of a heavy percussion section using everything from maracas, to tom-toms, to rain tubes paired with the heavily rhythmic music help to create a scene of a damned voyage in the ocean. McIntyre also adds that the true genius of the composer can be seen in how he sets the text. Words are flawlessly matched to the music, with neither becoming more prominent than the other, allowing for the audience to better understand the story. Here, the influence of Sondheim can be felt in the relationship of the composer to the words.
Such masterful setting of music and text then allows for an easy performance by the singers. Though Musa Ngqungwana (Queequeg) admits that the music is far more difficult than anything else he has sung (many times with conflicted notes being held against one another) both he and Roger Honeywell (Captain Ahab) concede that when such mastery is seen in the writing, the job of acting becomes easier. “They do most of the work for you,” says Honeywell when referring to the writers. Both actors highlight the use of intimate moments in the piece and how it allows for both them to search deeper into the spiritual questions of the show. “Why am I on this journey?” asked Ngqungwana. “It’s a spiritual journey. I am trying to find my place in the world.” And while Queequeg’s journey is far more focused on finding inner peace, Captain Ahab’s journey of hate and revenge is far more turbulent, like the swirling sea that surrounds him. Laughing about his false peg leg, Honeywell quips, “I’m an actor who works from the outside out.” He adds, “You can never assume to play a role. You can only hope to play a character’s intentions and hope to then inflate the skin of that role.” Honeywell then went on to describe how he and McIntyre went about to further delve into the character’s past to explain his motivations. “He was once a very able man,” says McIntyre, “and now he finds himself handicapped. That’s why he is so obsessed about revenge.”
Running little under three hours, this epic tale of the high seas is the best way to ingest the timeless story of Ahab’s revenge, besides reading the book itself. The performances are set for later this month, running January 20-28 at the Capitol Theatre. Tickets and other information can be requested at Utah Opera’s website. Make sure not to miss this monumental new production of Moby Dick, an original American opera based on an American classic.
Utah Opera presents Moby Dick by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer
Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
January 20-26 7:30 PM., January 28 2:00 PM
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