New Light Shed On Heggie’s Whale Of A Tale Of A Whale

Jay Hunter Morris is Ahab in the Los Angeles Opera staging of Jake Heggie's 'Moby-Dick.'<br>(Production photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)
Jay Hunter Morris revisits the role of Ahab in the Los Angeles Opera staging of Jake Heggie’s ‘Moby-Dick.’
(Production photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Jake Heggie, the onetime UCLA and San Francisco Opera publicist who has become, against all odds, one of the most popular American opera composers on the scene, was pretty busy last week. On Friday Oct. 30, he presided over the world premiere of his latest opera, Great Scott, at Dallas Opera. On Halloween Saturday, he flew to Los Angeles to witness the LA Opera’s first performance of his audacious attempt to grapple with Herman Melville’s magnum opus,  Moby-Dick. Even for Heggie, whose operas are now staged all over the globe, it has been an amazing week.

Heggie is on a roll with two operas
Heggie operas opened in Dallas and L.A.  one day apart.

As opera companies in Dallas, South Australia, Calgary, San Diego, and San Francisco have demonstrated – and as documented on a EuroArts DVD – Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have managed to condense Melville’s 635-page doorstop into a workable, stageworthy, fairly compact (just under 2 1/2 hours), grand opera. Needless to say, there was a lot of pruning of the book; to cite just one of zillions of examples, the opera cuts the number of encounters of the good ship Pequod with other vessels from nine to only one, probably the essential encounter that eventually resolves the story at the end. There are also scenes of the librettist’s invention, as well as the startling idea of using the book’s famous opening line “Call me Ishmael” as the opera’s closing line.

Yet within this relatively tight space, Heggie and Scheer pack plenty of character illustration and definition, sketching multi-faceted portraits of seamen like the practical first mate Starbuck (yes, the coffee chain was named after him!), the mystical, tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, the rookie whaler Greenhorn (Ishmael in the book), and of course, the infamously obsessive Captain Ahab.

Musa Ngqungwana plays the stoic Polynesian harpooner Queequeg.
Musa Ngqungwana plays the stoic Polynesian harpooner Queequeg.

The LA Opera production, as supervised by the original stage director Leonard Foglia, was pretty much the same one that was first seen in Dallas in 2010 and video-recorded in its fifth incarnation in San Francisco in 2012, with some differences in the lighting scheme leaning in the direction of brighter. No longer reliant upon a video director’s often arbitrary choices on the DVD, one could finally get a complete idea of set designer Robert Brill’s visions of the ship, of how the stunning projections of sea and stars fit within the proscenium, of how the three whaling lifeboats were really outlined projections superimposed upon a giant curved wall with notches for the cast to climb aboard. The grandeur of this production and of this opera at last became apparent, whereas the DVD stressed intimacy at the expense of the overall picture.

There were, however, two short scenes in which television was clearly the superior medium. In one, Pip (a trouser role) looked believably adrift in the ocean on TV, whereas in the Chandler, Pip was merely flying like Peter Pan in front of a scrim.  At the end of the opera, Greenhorn, the sole survivor of the Pequod, is adrift on the sea clutching onto a coffin; live, the scene is awkwardly set off as part of the giant curved wall, whereas the video focused intently and properly upon Greenhorn and the water.

Morris as Ahab
Morris’ heldentenor conjures memories of an older Jon Vickers.

Jay Hunter Morris, the Ahab in San Francisco, returned in that role in L.A., his leathery heldentenor conjuring memories of an older Jon Vickers. Also returning was the original Starbuck, baritone Morgan Smith, a more powerful presence than ever and a formidable match for Morris’ Ahab, triggering memories of Vickers’ Peter Grimes and Thomas Stewart’s Captain Balstrode going toe-to-toe in Peter Grimes many a decade ago in the Chandler. Joshua Guerrero’s Greenhorn grew perceptibly from a plaintive start to more authority as the character gained experience, Musa Ngqungwana (from South Africa) exuded exotic stoicism as Queequeg, and soprano Jacqueline Echols as Pip soared vocally and physically, as noted above. The male chorus was superb; the repeated choral “Death to Moby-Dick!” passage had an impressive brutality. There were times, though, particularly in Act One, when all of the voices couldn’t overcome the waves of sound pouring out from the pit.

For James Conlon, the music director of LA Opera whose sights are increasingly turning back toward Europe (this will soon be his only American post), it was in a sense a return to the scene of his Britten centennial celebration here in 2013-14. The culminating event of that massive project was Billy Budd, another contemporary all-male-character opera in English based upon another seafaring story by Melville.

You can be sure that Conlon the ardent Britten champion was aware of the connection when he went after Moby-Dick for LA Opera, and indeed, you can sense the shadow of Britten in several scenes, particularly in the crew’s choruses. But that’s all it is, an undercurrent, for Heggie’s musical profile tends to be brighter in color, more lyrical, and more open-hearted, a far cry from the closed-in darkness and introspection of much Britten.

Sondheimesque: Queequeg’s duet with Greenhorn (Joshua Guerrero).

If Heggie draws from any sources, they tend to be American ones. The most interesting source is Stephen Sondheim, to whom the score for Moby-Dick is dedicated. Greenhorn’s music is the primary recipient. You can hear distinctive Sondheim chords in the Act I duet on the masts for Greenhorn and Queequeg, and some Sondheim-like lyricism for Greenhorn later on. But no, there is not a whiff of Broadway in this; Heggie thoroughly integrates the Sondheim influence into his operatic language.

Heggie can also be a very canny operator; the Big Tune that Starbuck sings at the end of Act One is the type of Puccini/Lloyd-Webber-ish ear worm that an audience can’t help but hum during intermission, and it recurs in fragments throughout Act Two. I’m not crazy about it, but I can’t get it out of my head either. More palatable and equally memorable is the moody four-chord motif evoking the ocean that begins, runs within, and ends the opera.

Yet this score is more than a series of musical guessing games or crowd-pleasing gestures, for there is depth to be found in Heggie’s writing. Conlon could sense it, draw it out, and fling forth luscious details in the orchestrations that were not apparent before, while also insisting upon more swing and drive to the rhythms. The large LA Opera Orchestra played gorgeously, and the projection of sound from the pit was more open and opulent than usual in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Indeed, the score’s stature grows after a number of passes through the DVD and after seeing LA Opera’s performance, a promising sign that this opera is going to be around for a long time.

Next for the busy team of Heggie and Scheer is Out Of Darkness, a two-act opera based upon three earlier works about the Holocaust, due in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall in May 2016, and an operatic version of It’s A Wonderful Life, set for Houston Grand Opera in Dec. 2016. Great Scott will surface again at the once-dead, now-resurgent San Diego Opera in May 2016 – and what better place for that to be produced, for the plot revolves around a diva who returns to her hometown to save the struggling local opera company. Meanwhile, Moby-Dick swims on at the Chandler through Nov. 28.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.