Moby-Dick

Jake Heggie and Moby-Dick

American composer Jake Heggie (b. 1961) began his musical studies at the age of five like many composers featured in our Operapaedia articles, eventually continuing his studies at UCLA under pianist Johana Harris. While working on staff in the public relations department at San Francisco Opera he came under the radar of General Director Lotfi Mansouri as a composer and was appointed composer-in-residence at SFO in 1998 where his first opera, Dead Man Walking, was produced in 2000. The libretto, based on a memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, was written by playwright Terrence McNally (Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, Love! Valour! Compassion!). Dead Man Walking has had more than 15 international productions and has led to more commissions, including The End of the Affair (2004, Houston Grand Opera, libretto by the composer and Leonard Foglia after Graham Greene), At the Statue of Venus (2005, Opera Colorado, libretto by Terrence McNally), To Hell and Back (2006, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, libretto by Gene Scheer) and Last Acts (2008, Houston Grand Opera, libretto by Gene Scheer after a play by McNally; the opera is now known as Three Decembers).

The idea for an opera based on the epic seafaring novel by Herman Melville originally came from McNally, who had dreamed of such a work for years. But due to a recurrence of lung cancer the playwright found it necessary, regretfully and painfully, to bow out of the work and Heggie turned to one of his other writing partners, Gene Scheer, to continue. Scheer read the book twice over before agreeing to tackle the project, a daunting one, which involved taking an 850 page book with numerous themes and hammering it down into a libretto for an opera in two acts. It also meant, for Heggie, beginning from scratch, as it needed to be "Gene's piece". Stage director Leonard Foglia was also involved very early on, as was Patrick Summers, the conductor.

From the beginning of the composer's work with Scheer they both understood that the opera needed to focus on the character of Ahab, captain of the Pequod, and his obsession to control his destiny, nature, and the universe around him. Over a year was spent on the writing of the libretto, coming up with an 'architecture' or structure for the opera with the close collaboration of Foglia as a dramaturge. Choosing to take the first line of the novel ("Call me Ishmael") and make it the last line of the libretto gave them the freedom to re-cast the structure of the rambling story (which includes multiple themes, viewpoints of many different characters and seemingly endless but fascinating events, large and small) into something more worthy of the stage. As the creators of the work acknowledge, Melville scholars and avid readers of the book may demure, but the spirit of the author's intent is most definitely involved, even to the point of using much of Melville's own language.

Heggie struggled to find the right musical language for the score, asking himself as a composer what musical 'world' or sonic environment would best satisfy to tell the story of Ahab for an audience over the lapse of a three-hour stage work. He noted that certain elements were de rigueur, i.e. the 'sounds' of wind, the sea, a storm, waves. But he also acknowledged the percussive effects of Ahab's walking late at night on the deck of the Pequod, distinguished by his peg leg, a crude prosthesis made from the jawbone of a whale replacing the extremity lost to Moby-Dick. He also referred to the sound whalers of the nineteenth century heard when passing quietly through a pod of whales, the unusual clicking sound (which marine biologists have now identified as echolocation) that reminded them of something hammering against the hull of the ship.

The opera opened at Dallas Opera, the lead partner in a consortium of opera companies (including San Diego Opera) responsible for the production, on April 30, 2010 with tenor Ben Heppner in the role of Ahab, tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (Ishmael), baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and soprano Talise Trevigne as Pip, with Patrick Summers conducting the Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

The author acknowledges Jerome Weeks' News and Features article, "Audio Files: A Conversation with Moby-Dick Composer Jake Heggie", March 17, 2009, for information gleaned from a conversation between the composer and representatives of news organizations in and around Dallas, Texas.

The Source and the Libretto of Moby-Dick

Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick first appeared in 1851 and is universally regarded as one of the ‘great’ American novels. As the New Grove Dictionary of Opera points out, the Heggie-Scheer opera is not the first attempt to set the novel operatically: a composer by the name of J. Low premiered a work based on the novel in 1955 (this author can only find reference to composer and poet Jackson Mac Low, but the opera in question is not listed anywhere among his musical works). Other Melville works set operatically are Bartleby the Scrivener (Walter Aschaffenburg, 1964), The Bell Tower (Ernst Krenek, 1957), The Confidence Man (George Rochberg, 1982) and, of course, Billy Budd (Benjamin Britten, 1951).

Melville spent time in the navy as well as on the 1841-1842 whaling expedition of the Acushnet. But he took his inspiration from the real-life ramming and ultimate wrecking of the Essex in 1820, a Nantucket whaling ship that was destroyed, seemingly deliberately, by a sperm whale off the western coast of South America. The first mate of the Essex published a memoir of the event in 1821. Melville read it and was greatly influenced by it just prior to his writing of Moby-Dick in 1850. He was also influenced by a story published in The Knickerbocker in 1839 concerning the dispatch of a large bull sperm whale, albino, known as ‘Mocha Dick’ for its presence around the Chilean island of the same name.

Melville was also inspired by the dark, shadowy side of the works of author Nathaniel Hawthorne whom he met at a picnic in the spring of 1850. He ended up dedicating his novel to Hawthorne, as much for his respect for him as a writer as for his friendship and support. Melville’s work essentially disappeared from the American canon after the publication of Moby-Dick because of its scathing reception by critics and readers who could not grasp or understand its sprawling structure. The writer died forgotten by all except a subterranean collection of New York aficionados until the author Carl Van Doren began to preach Melville’s importance at Columbia University shortly before World War I and in his important monograph, The American Novel which was published in 1921. This marked a resurgence of interest in Melville and in Moby-Dick as a pillar of American writing. In England, D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) did much the same for the British audience.

Moby-Dick is an allegory, a scientific treatise, a biblical tract, a memoir, a drama and a novel all in one. In this remarkable book Melville creates an entire world, held in the crucible of a whaling ship under the orders of a fanatical ‘monomaniac’ (as Melville calls him) whose only focus is to take revenge on the great albino whale who tore his leg from his body. All else…the financial interests of the Pequod’s owners, the time it would take to track down the elusive animal and even the lives of his crew…is subject to his singular obsession. Given all this, it was certainly audacious (some would’ve said ‘foolhardy’ at the time) for librettist Gene Scheer to attempt an operatic concentration of the book for composer Jake Heggie. However, the opera Moby-Dick is an extremely effective and successful dramatization of the story. Its three creators (Heggie, Scheer, and Leonard Foglia who acted as dramaturge and stage director of the project) did an incredible job capturing the flavor, spirit and intent of the novel even if many important events in the book had to be jettisoned.

Speaking plainly, it isn’t easy to write a libretto based on any book, much less a book as complicated and as lengthy as Moby-Dick. But a contemporary opera project is made much easier through free collaboration between composer and poet/dramatist, often today with the active participation of a staging partner like a director or dramaturge. Heggie and Scheer (who himself is a composer and has collaborated with other composers such as Tobias Picker, Stephen Paulus and Wynton Marsalis) have given each other permission to comment on their developing work for a project, subjugating ego for the greater good and dramatic effectiveness of the work at hand. (On a personal note, this author is aware of a recently produced opera of national importance in which the librettist refused to budge on requests from the composer and producers to edit or re-work any of the original libretto. The result was a less than effective stage piece.) This collaborative attitude has resulted in a string of successful pieces including three operas and four song cycles. In an interesting contemporary twist, they work intensely via e-mail and text attachments, not something that Strauss/Von Hofmannsthal or Mozart/Da Ponte would ever have dreamed of!

The Music of Moby-Dick

Two words come to mind with regard to the music of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick: accessible and eclectic. This is one composer who has not lost the ability to spin a good tune or a beautiful melody, who has the ears and the experience of his audience constantly in mind. He does this in a way that has become more and more a part of the young American composer’s bag of compositional tricks: drawing from sometimes vastly different influences in order to achieve a successful musical drama.

Heggie’s melodic instincts are solid and generous. They are on display from the moment the overture begins (you can hear the beginning of the overture on the landing page of the opera Moby-Dick on our website): while the strings, harp and triangle provide a bed of shimmering e-minor (perhaps evoking a calm, sun-splotched sea), the winds play a two-note rising figure which quickly expands into a simple, memorable motive that wanders up and down the scale. A lone clarinet plays a related theme that has a slightly exotic flavor, a theme that will later be associated with the South Seas native, Queequeg. These two ideas overlap and play with each other, other groups of instruments taking their turns with them as the overture becomes more expansive. A second attractive and memorable theme is introduced by a solo oboe, an idea that is associated with Captain Ahab’s obsession. (This melody later appears in Ahab's Act I aria, "I leave a white and turbid wake" when he sings that the setting sun no longer gives him enjoyment, "it is anguish to me since I can ne'er enjoy.")

The composer knows that judicious (but not overdone) repetition of these simple motives aids greatly in audiences’ enjoyment of opera. Like the Wagnerian leitmotif, the use of groups of readily knowable themes in the development of a score creates an overall sense of unity for a two or three hour stage work. Unlike the leitmotif however, Heggie is looser with the attachment of these themes to characters, ideas, emotional states or props. This creates a freer and more attractively ambiguous texture.

Orchestral color is of primary importance to Heggie, with solo instruments and unusual groupings constantly creating an overall kaleidoscopic effect. Voices, too, create a similar effect. The use of the bright, steely heldentenor quality for Ahab is very effective, making the character part hero, part god, part military officer, part wounded seaman. It brings to mind the use of a similar quality for Verdis Otello, particularly when the Moor is in deep personal anguish over the seeming infidelity of Desdemona. The use of a single female voice in the opera (the soprano trouser role of Pip, the cabin boy) also brings a brilliant touch of color in an otherwise dark palette of all male voices.

In terms of Heggie’s American eclecticism there are elements in Moby-Dick which feel derived from many different sources. The use of compound meters and odd, syncopated rhythmic combinations suggests jazz roots though one would never describe this score as ‘jazzy’. The use of choral forces to sing sea shanties (entirely of Heggie’s invention) brings a sense of authenticity to the scenic proceedings. One can hear the influence, as well, of composers like Britten, Copland, Bernstein (the most eclectic composer of all!), even Philip Glass and the minimalists. Yet, as is true of the best American eclectics, one never loses the sense that this composer is fully in charge, that his voice is the one we predominantly hear. In the opera Moby-Dick Jake Heggie does what all great composers of opera do: he communicates an epic story using music as surface and music as subtext, supporting and challenging the audience at the same time.