SHIPBUILDERS: John Toia, John Gage, and Drew Field took on the daunting task of taking Moby-Dick from the page to the stage. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

The Dallas Opera Goes Big

The Dallas Opera is staging Moby-Dick for the opening of its inaugural season at the Winspear Opera House. But how do you do epic drama without the dramatic price tag?

Five years ago, Jonathan Pell, the Dallas Opera’s artistic director, approached composer Jake Heggie and asked if he had any subject in mind for a new opera to celebrate the opening season of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. “Without batting an eye, he said Moby-Dick,” Pell says. “And I paused for a moment and said, ‘That’s interesting. Do you have anything else in mind?’”

The project struck Pell as a bit too ambitious for a company that would just be getting accustomed to its new space. Though staging Herman Melville’s whaling novel might not be the most difficult production in opera history (it’s hard to top the final scene of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which calls for the Rhine River to overflow its banks, carrying off a chorus and drowning a principal, as the nearby Hall of the Gibichungs collapses and Valhalla appears in the sky and bursts into flames), putting Moby-Dick onstage would be no mean feat. How do you stage an opera based on a book about a group of men on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic chasing down a white whale that sinks the ship and drowns the sailors, leaving the narrator floating in an endless abyss of water, clinging to a coffin?

As the two men batted around other ideas, it became clear to Pell that Heggie had his heart set on Moby-Dick. “When an artist is going to devote four or five years of his life to a project, it has to be something in which he believes so passionately that nothing will sway him,” Pell says. “You don’t want him to become bored with the project.” So Pell acquiesced. Heggie would get his shot at composing an epic opera. But the task of realizing his vision on the stage fell to the Dallas Opera’s production team, and they all had misgivings.

John Gage, the Dallas Opera’s director of production: “The whale and the sinking of the Pequod—what do you do?” 

Technical director Drew Field: “What do you do about the whale? I was drawing dollar signs on my pad.”

Associate director of production John Toia: “I just thought: lots of boats. Lots of water. Big fish.”

With Moby-Dick, epic drama wouldn’t be a problem, but big drama usually means big bucks. So the Dallas Opera enlisted four other companies to sign on as co-producers. Even so, when the initial production designs came in, it became clear that building the set would stretch the five companies’ finances. “Of a very significant budget already, it was $1 million over what we had budgeted,” Pell says.

That’s where Gage, Field, and Toia come in. It’s not just their job to realize the vision of an opera’s director and designer, to take the conceptual ideas for a work and make it into the physical experience we see onstage. They also have to do it within budget. “We’re all dealing with an image, and we want to make that image work,” Field says. “If the initial way to do it is too expensive, we have to figure out a way to do it while keeping the spirit, the whole world that it creates. But we can’t spend all of our money.”

John Toia’s first question: would there be water on the stage? In fact, the initial designs did not include many of the hokey images that spring to mind when imagining a stage version of Moby-Dick. There would be no realistic whaler floating on a stage flooded with water. And no mechanical white whale.
What the set will actually look like, however, is a closely guarded secret. Clues slip out only when the production team talks about the ideas that didn’t make the cut. There was a large mechanical bridge that was designed to move during the performance and hold singers. Field says it was the first thing they scrapped, lowering the cost of the set by $500,000 in one swoop.

The design is costly, Gage says, in part because the front of the stage is built at a gentle rake, which gradually becomes another form as it moves upstage. “The effect is so stunning, I hate to give it away before anyone sees it,” he says.

Another stage edit came when the director requested additional ladders to allow chorus members to climb up and down the set during the performance without backtracking. “It’s like a big ‘W,’” Field says. But with each new addition, the director, designer, and production team had to reach a compromise. “We came to the agreement that there was a certain amount of money we could spend,” Field says. “So now my thing is, you want to add those, you take something else out. But you haven’t got much time because it’s being built as we speak.”

Time is a big issue. The production team didn’t see the first set drawings until November 11. Since then, hard stage frames were dropped and replaced with soft fabric frames, and 3 feet were cut off the depth of the set—all at breakneck speed. But with opening night bearing down on the team, there is no room for jitters.

“I’m actually rarely nervous,” Field says. “But if you have a crackerjack, wonderful dress rehearsal, beware opening night.”

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