Playbill: Where did Moby-Dick begin, and I don't mean going back to Herman Melville?
Heggie: Well, about three years ago in January of 2005, Jonathan Pell called me and said The Dallas Opera was moving to a new house in 2009 and wanted to commission a new opera for that season‹"Was I interested?" I had been wanting to work with Jonathan for a long time; he has such a great reputation as a champion of new work and we'd been talking about a project for quite awhile. As I happened to be on my way to New York, I called up Terrence McNally and asked him if he would be interested in doing this. He recognized that it was a huge deal and a great honor and said that the opera we needed to do was Moby-Dick. When he said that, I literally got chills and I immediately began hearing music. I thought, "Wow, this is an intense and amazing idea; rather terrifying, adventurous and exciting." Jonathan suggested other ideas but we kept coming back to this because our passion lay in this really, really amazing story. So, it was decided that that's what it would be.
Earlier this year, Terrence had to withdraw due to health concerns, so, I turned to my new partner and collaborator, Gene Scheer (in the past three years, we've done six big works together and had a great time). Gene read the book and was on-board right away with great enthusiasm.
Playbill: Gene, as the librettist, did you have the common sense to say, "There's just too much here for a single opera?"
Scheer: It wasn't a question of too much, it was a question of whether the right stuff was there. When I read the book‹I had read it, of course, as a student‹but I wanted to see how I would respond to it as an adult and, like Jake, I saw immediately that there were all sorts of possibilities but they would have to be distilled down into an operatic form. We would have to leave a lot out. It's not just a matter of taking the book and putting it onstage, it's the business of creating an opera. But, it was all the wonderful operatic things in Moby-Dick that attracted me to the book and I could understand why Terrence suggested it and why Jake was so enthusiastic about it. We're off and running with it now.
Heggie: To me, the book is innately operatic. It's had several incarnations but, to my knowledge, there hasn't been a full length opera and I think it could be just the perfect incarnation to theatricalize this book. It has such depth and opera seems an ideal way to tell the story.
Playbill: Melville's prose is distinct and I'm sure that's going to have an impact on you, as composer or librettist. What are your thoughts on translating his style?
Scheer: The book reads rather like an epic poem. Obviously, it's prose but there's so much poetry within the book and there are sections where we're going to have to come up with different ways of telling the story than Melville did. But there's so much we can cull from the book, wonderful passages, the chapter with the symphony is just a spectacularly beautiful passage. Melville has an incredible poetic sense that will lend itself beautifully to opera.
Heggie: I agree. You know, the thing that's really remarkable about that book for the time period in which it was written is the improvisational, free-flowing nature of it. He goes from straight prose to something like love poetry to setting up scenes as though this were a play‹and then, back again! I don't know anything else to compare it to, which is why it still baffles some readers and scholars today. Where did it come from? And how do we read it? I think we read it as an improvisation on a theme, variations on a theme. To me, that fosters an incredible musical palette. The color that he finds in language extends to musical expression, also.
Playbill: Speaking of "variations on a theme," I would think one of the difficulties of this piece is writing music representative of the ocean that doesn't sound like something that's been written twenty times before.
Heggie: That's not challenging (laughs), no, it's not‹because it's coming to me fresh. I have a specific way of expressing things that's my own language and I love the challenge of it, as well as the breadth of possibilities. My God, it's infinite possibilities! And I know that Gene is looking to set things up in such a way that it's just going to come to me.
Scheer: Everything will be sifted through our imaginations. All art is autobiographical and it all comes through your experiences. The music will have a distinct "Heggie" feel to it.
Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing for The Dallas Opera.