Along with a new opera, a new chapter in opera history may have opened Friday night at Winspear Opera House. Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, based on Herman Melville’s 19th-century whaling epic, embodies, combines, and distills several long-term trends in what might be called—with either approbation or disdain—a “special effects” opera.
Live opera will never surpass the cinema when it comes to making children fly or mountains crumble, particularly in an era when computer graphics can make anything appear to happen. But Moby Dick proved that a fine score, performed by an ensemble of great singers and instrumentalists, can, in combination with vividly imagined, well-executed special effects and computer graphics, produce a thrilling emotional response.
Opera as spectacle is as old as opera itself. Crowd scenes, battle scenes, underwater scenes, ascensions or descents to or from heaven or hell have all happened on the operatic stage before, often decorated by—or as decoration for—great music by Handel, Mozart, Wagner, or Puccini.
But the extraordinary and ongoing refinement of computer graphics has created amazing new possibilities. The hybrid cinematic-live music productions of Philip Glass, the re-creation of classic film with live orchestral accompaniment, the production of orchestral concerts inspired by computer games, and the opulent special effects at rock concerts, are all significant manifestations of a whole new branch of musical production. So far, the integration of computer graphics with live, acoustical, dramatic performances has been tentative; with Moby Dick, the computerized visual effects and the music are inseparable on an unprecedented level.
Several other trends are at work here as well. Opera based on American literature has become almost a subgenre—witness Adamo’s Little Women, Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire, Heggie’s own Dead Man Walking, Rorem’s Our Town. Each of these is characterized by an extremely literate approach that both honors the source but is not afraid to comment and expand on themes from the source. For Moby Dick, librettist Gene Scheer has produced a text that skips the opening, land-based scenes in the novel but impressively and convincingly develops a complex, multi-layered set of relationships, and does so with a dramatic clarity and impetus almost unprecedented in opera. A viewer totally unfamiliar with Melville’s novel would have little difficulty following and understanding this plot.
A combination of abstraction and a degree of simplicity in the solid physical sets and extreme complexity in the computerized visual effects, designed by Robert Brill, Elaine J. McCarthy, and Donald Holder (set designer, projection designer, and lighting designer, respectively) produces some breathtaking effects. The overture, featuring the gradual emergence of a computerized image of a whaling ship from a starry sky, almost pushes the dependence on visual effects too far; the subject matter and breadth of the drama ultimately support this indulgence, however.
Composer Heggie has responded with a traditional, neo-romantic musical style, with strong doses of Glass-style minimalism, and definite elements that can be traced to Puccini and Wagner. But, more than anything, he seems to have been inspired by the heyday of the British choral-orchestral tradition, with meticulous attention to the blending of the colors of the human voice with orchestra. This is a harmonic language that lends itself well to passion, and to themes of transformation and obsession so fundamental to this opera.
Gigantic roles abound, of course. Ben Heppner, the leading dramatic tenor of our time, was born to musically embody Ahab—and those 2,000 lucky opera buffs present Friday night will probably be bragging for decades about seeing Heppner create this role. The cast, otherwise all male, includes one pants role, the cabin boy Pip, sung and acted with hypnotic power by soprano Talise Trevigne. Likewise, baritone Morgan Smith in the role of Starbuck, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, and tenor Stephen Costello as Ishmael (known through most of the opera as “Greenhorn”), turned in performances worthy of a major premiere, as did baritone Robert Orth and tenor Matthew O’Neill in unusually large secondary roles as Stubb and Flask. The all-male chorus, trained by Alexander Rom, splendidly fulfilled its role as the central musical aspect of this opera.
Director Leonard Foglia kept the action constantly moving against the backdrop of special effects. Conductor Patrick Summers, who has established himself as the leading interpreter of American opera, once again showed extraordinary insight into the genre.
In summary, Moby Dick may point opera in an entirely new direction. At the very least, it’s an extraordinary musical and dramatic experience.