I'm no expert on opera. But after seeing the San Francisco Opera production of Moby-Dick, I was struck by the ways in which an opera is really a lot like a "classic" novel. It's long. It’s epic. There are moments of climax, followed by moments of pause that can grate on attention spans better attuned to YouTube. With operas, as with novels, you have to allow yourself to believe.
Let’s check in on what we gain, what we lose, and how it all fits together onstage in this operatic Moby-Dick. (Not in the Bay Area? PBS will run it as part of Great Performances next spring.)
What we gain
Of course, opera is mostly about music. Jake Heggie’s score does the work that language does in a novel, imparting the weight and meaning of each character's experience in songs that are at times dissonant and at times peppered with pop sensibility. Gene Scheer’s libretto also manages to preserve the artfulness of Melville’s language while doing a pretty good job of keeping things moving. One exception: in the second act, there's a clumsy link to current-day politics with the line "We’ll plant our spears like our nation’s flag into the flesh of that terrorizing beast.”
What we lose
How does an opera portray a first-person narrative? Well, it largely doesn’t. In Moby-Dick, despite truly inventive staging, the wide-angle perspective of the proscenium is never breached (no pun intended). Instead of Ishmael serving as the reader’s tour guide and filter, he is merely a fellow traveler who goes by "Greenhorn" (in an astute twist, he doesn’t utter his famous line until the end of his journey). There are advantages to this: In Moby-Dick the opera, we’re allowed to go where Greenhorn can’t go, notably deeper inside Ahab and Starbuck’s relationship, but the necessity of Ishmael’s experience is muted once the narrative is removed from first-person.
As in the book, the friendship between Ishmael/Greenhorn and Queeqeq is the heart of Moby-Dick; presented in the uber-traditional format of opera, it is lovely and refreshing to see two men sing a love duet. The opera also does immense justice to the boy Pip (portrayed by the only woman performer in the cast, Talise Trevigne). And the destruction of Pip’s innocence by the vanity of grown-up follies is heartbreaking and chilling when set to song.
When I first read Moby-Dick in high school English, my teacher had the class skip every chapter on whaling or seamanship. That’s about half of the novel. On one hand: Seriously? We’re skipping half the book? On the other hand, it does get kind of draggy when they’re talking about all the ropes and stuff. SF Opera’s adaptation brilliantly solves this "problem" with design elements. Light projections designed by Elaine McCarthy invoke constellations above a vast expanse of the sea, mimicking the aesthetic of nautical charts and drawings, which then morph into the shape of the Pequod. The stage itself is a maze of ropes and masts. Here, in the set and lighting design, is the physical world (and fake science) of Melville’s book, delivered in a way that heightens its relationship to the story.
The only place the stagecraft falls short is in portraying the actual whale, whom we never see and whose final confrontation with Ahab falls flat. Then again, the whale isn’t really the point ... right?
Image: Cory Weaver, courtesy of SF Opera