San Diego Opera
Civic Theatre (3rd and B St.)
Feb. 18 (Sat) 7 p.m.
Feb. 21 (Tues) 7 p.m.
Feb. 24 (Fri) 8 p.m.
Feb. 26 (Sun) 2 p.m.
“Moby-Dick” sees its West Coast premiere in San Diego this month
By Charlene Baldridge | GSD Reporter
Openly gay composer Jake Heggie’s meteoric rise from public relations employee to resident composer at one of the nation’s leading opera companies, San Francisco Opera (SFO), is monumental. Creator of “Moby-Dick,” the second feature in San Diego Opera’s 2012 season, Heggie finished his first magnum opus, “Dead Man Walking,” in 2000.
After tremendous response from “Dead Man Walking,” Heggie went on to compose, orchestrate and premiere three additional operas: “End of the Affair” (Houston Grand Opera, 2004), “Three Decembers” (Houston Grand Opera, 2008) and “Moby-Dick” (Dallas Opera, 2010).
A success on its opening night—excited opera-goers shredded their programs and confetti rained down on those seated on the main floor—“Moby-Dick” has been co-commissioned by a consortium of opera companies including Dallas, San Francisco, the State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera and San Diego. The San Diego performances February 18 – 26 mark the opera’s West Coast premiere.
The San Diego Opera production stars tenor megastar Ben Heppner, who created the role of Capt. Ahab, a man obsessed with hunting down the white whale that deprived him of his leg. Based on Herman Melville’s epic novel, the opera is conducted by Karen Keltner, directed by Leonard Foglia, and stars soprano Talise Trevigne as Pip, the cabin boy; baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck; and New Zealand bass Jonathan Lemalu in the role of Queequeg. In his San Diego Opera debut, American tenor Jonathan Boyd assays the character Greenhorn.
“Moby-Dick” began life as a collaboration with Terrence McNally, who conceived the idea in the first place. “He was on board for over a year,” said Heggie, “but then had to withdraw for personal reasons.” McNally, who was replaced by librettist Gene Scheer, provided some important, initial guidance, Heggie said.
“Terrence [McNally] gave me three elements that would stay,” Heggie said. “One was for Ahab to be a heldentenor; the second was that Pip would be a pants role for soprano; and [the] third, that the entire story take place at sea, so there’s no jumping back and forth between land and sea.”
Writing the opera, Heggie said the going was tough until Ahab’s big aria came to him. “It wasn’t just tough,” he said, “it was almost impossible. All the other characters seemed real to me… but Ahab remained a vague, unknowable person,” Heggie said.
“I like to write organically, from the beginning, straight through. I went around the wall I’d built in my head [and] went directly to Ahab’s great monologue,” he said. “There, suddenly, was this fully-formed, aching individual rather than just the archetype obsessed captain.”
It was then that the main character became real for Heggie. “When Ahab became a real person to me, the whole world of the opera opened up,” he said. “That gave me the sound world, the harmonic world and the rhythmic world that would inspire the rest of the opera. After I wrote that scene, I could go back to the beginning and write straight through.”
Ahab finally emerged in January 2009, a mere year-and-a-half prior to the scheduled opening. Between January and June of 2009, Heggie wrote “the bones of the opera,” he said. It was work-shopped in San Francisco, followed by more rewrites and the orchestration.
Currently, Heggie said he has “tons of pieces” he is working on, including “Into the Fire,” a dramatic song cycle for mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet; a piece for Seattle’s Music of Remembrance;” and his first symphony, which premieres next year.
There are two more operas from Heggie, too. One is still under wraps and the other, titled “Great Scott” and written with McNally, was just announced for a 2015 premiere at the Dallas Opera.
“When ‘Dead Man Walking’ was finished, I never even thought about getting a day job,” Heggie said. “I just thought, ‘Okay, now I’m a fulltime composer.’ I knew it was what I wanted to do, and here we are, all these years later.”