Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the classic tale of one man’s pursuit of an elusive white whale, has over the years been turned into films and television miniseries. Now, it has been turned into an opera. Jake Heggie, whose Dead Man Walking was performed earlier this year at the Broad Stage, is the composer of the show, which opens Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
“I was asked by Dallas Opera to write something for them, and they were building a new American opera house,” he says. “It’s red. It’s bold. I knew that [the opera] needed to be something big, bold, and daring. It was Terence McNally’s idea. He was going to be the librettist but he had to withdraw for personal reasons. That’s when [Gene] Scheer took over and wrote a brilliant libretto.”
Heggie admits to experiencing the same problems most students do when first reading the epic novel. “I don’t know how people read it in high school,” he admits. “I found it difficult to do as an adult. To really give yourself over to that world is a really big commitment. I read it twice through before we started writing. All the chapters that irritated me at the beginning are now my favorites—those side chapters not involved in the plot.”
As daunting as Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is, it may be less daunting than adapting the story for opera. The key, Heggie says, is “making it human. Shrinking the landscape to the point where it seems doable. The more specific you get with the things, the more doable and somehow the broader they can be. If you get specific you can accomplish a lot. The big breakthrough was to put ‘Call me Ishmael’ at the end and really earn that line.” (For those who need to brush up on the book, that line opens Melville’s novel.)
Moby Dick is dedicated to one of Heggie’s biggest influences—Stephen Sondheim. “He told me that’s the highest praise of all and thanked me very warmly,” Heggie says. “He’s been very generous and kind and supportive to me through the years. Sweeney Todd showed me there was still a lot to say on the American Lyric stage and there were many ways to do it.”
Heggie is now based out of San Francisco, but he previously lived in Los Angeles. As such, he is thrilled that LA Opera is staging his work. “Before I moved to San Francisco I was an LA Opera subscriber,” he says. “In fact, LAO’s 1984 production of Peter Grimes was the first time opera really made sense to me. That production blew the top of my head off. They are responsible for my formative years of opera experience. I saw Tosca the night Placido Domingo was supposed to conduct, but wound up singing it. I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was electrifying. To have them embrace a piece of mine these years later is enormously moving.”