Pittsburgh Opera will continue its mission of giving contemporary American operas a hearing when the four-performance run of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s critically acclaimed and much publicized Moby-Dick begins at the Benedum next Saturday night, March 17. The work is based on key elements from Herman Melville’s classic novel of the same name – the tale of Captain Ahab’s all-consuming pursuit of the legendary white whale that chomped off one of his legs at the knee.
Five years in the making (and dedicated to Stephen Sondheim), Moby-Dick premiered at Dallas Opera on April 30, 2010 – an elaborately staged production with the “Wagnerian” tenor, Ben Heppner, singing the role of Ahab. Heggie is said to have composed his music with Heppner’s voice in mind, and librettist Scheer has estimated that about half of the dialogue uses Melville’s own words. Dallas Opera had commissioned the piece jointly with San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera, and, unlike many new works, the opera has enjoyed a number of runs prior to this, its Pittsburgh premiere. Besides the performances of the companies that commissioned the work, Moby-Dick has been done by Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, while Dallas Opera revived the original production in 2016. The considerable expense of this production discouraged one or two other venues from pursuing their initial interest in the work.
Pittsburgh Opera audiences will see a new staging, co-produced with Utah Opera. A set and costumes were created to make the opera more practical for regional companies, because, unlike the earlier productions, the set is designed so that it can be adjusted to just about any venue. Utah Opera debuted the new creation in Salt Lake City this January to a great deal of critical acclaim. The current issue of Opera News gives the event a considerable splash and is all the more interesting in that a couple of the singers reviewed will also be heard here. A few minutes of the Utah staging are available on YouTube.
Of the opera in general, Robert Coleman writes that “Heggie’s visceral score and colorful instrumentation highlight fascinating contrasts in character development, voice pairings and music style; the composer’s use of dissonance and flirtations with atonality dance well off an overwhelmingly lyric and tonal score.” The Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Set Designer, Erhard Rom and Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn, all receive very favorable comment, and words including “stunning” leap from the page – and these three will be part of the Pittsburgh production team.
While not a total stag-do, like Britten’s Billy Budd (also taken from a Melville novel), male voices dominate Moby-Dick, with a single “pants role” (Pip) taken by a female singer. But considering the acclaim the Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell received for his January 20 performance of Captain Ahab in Salt Lake City, a great deal of fine singing will be heard on Saturday evening. “Honeywell’s unflagging heldentenor intensely portrayed Ahab’s obsession,” Opera News notes, “deftly negotiating angular, piercing vocal lines. His more melodic Act II aria, ‘Heartless God,’ was an exquisitely sung respite before the work’s stormy ending.” Sean Panikkar, well remembered as a former Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist, will lend his brilliant tenor voice and commanding stage presence to the role of Greenhorn (Ishmael in the book), and South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, also praised for his Salt Lake City performance of the role, will make his local debut as the tattooed harpooner Queequeg.
The American baritone Michael Mayes, already announced for next season, will make his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Starbuck. Eric Ferring, fresh from last month’s success in Ashes & Snow, will sing Flask; Malcolm Mackenzie, Stubb; Jacqueline Echols, Pip; Benjamin Taylor, Gardiner; George Milosh, the Nantucket Sailor; Scott Cuva, Tashtego, and Andy Berry, the Spanish Sailor. Antony Walker will conduct, and dancers from Attack Theater will augment the ensemble.
It was announced in early February that a $25,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was awarded to Pittsburgh Opera to help support the upcoming performances. “We appreciate this strong endorsement from the NEA,” General Director Christopher Hahn said at the time. “This new production of Moby-Dick will help introduce thousands of people to opera.” It is sincerely hoped that his audience size prediction comes true, for opera, as presented by the company, is a very expensive proposition. While the grant is generous and welcomed, a semi-educated guess is that it costs far more than $25,000 to raise the curtain, and an unknown work is always a risky financial undertaking.
For tickets, complete production details and more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
David Bachman Photography