Dallas — On Sunday, Nov. 20, The Dallas Opera presented the final performance of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, conducted by TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume. This was a special moment for the company, which had produced the world premiere in 2010 as part of the opening season in the Winspear Opera House. I had seen the opera when it premiered, just before I joined the company as General Director and CEO, and was so impressed with its music, dramatic power and innovative staging that I was determined to bring it back to Dallas. Through amazing good fortune, we were able to line up Emmanuel Villaume’s schedule with that of the reigning Ahab, Jay Hunter Morris (the original Ahab, Ben Heppner, having since retired), Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, and Morgan Smith as Starbuck.
While some operas can overcome a weak libretto, or a nonsensical storyline, the best operas balance music and text. Moby (as we affectionately call the opera) benefits from exceptionally close integration between these two elements, and composer Heggie has always been quick to credit Scheer for his contribution. (As an aside, do most opera goers know the name of the librettist for Verdi’s Aida, or Puccini’s La Rondine? Librettists are often ignored, sadly). When one adds a brilliant production, in this case directed by Lenny Foglia (and revived by Keturah Stickann), designed by Robert Brill, with projections by Elaine J. McCarthy; this triad of exceptionally talented composer, gifted librettist and creative design team forms the basis of an extraordinary new work.
Heggie is arguably the most popular living American opera composer, and his earlier works, including Dead Man Walking (with librettist Terrence McNally), have been performed many times around the world. His opera Great Scott (also with McNally) premiered in Dallas a year ago before traveling to co-commissioner and co-producer San Diego Opera, and is awaiting its next revival. Moby-Dick has been produced by all five of the original co-commissioners and co-producers (Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, Calgary, and State Opera of South Australia), with additional productions in Washington and Los Angeles; other productions are “on deck” and an altogether new production is in the works. (Given the breathtaking original production, that is one brave design team).
Circling back to librettist Gene Scheer: My paperback copy of Hermann Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, on which the opera is based, runs 377 pages in tiny font. The printed libretto runs just under 60 pages, but in a script, the names of the characters speaking take up much of the page, so the length of spoken text is really about half of that. Scheer’s great skill in creating a short, well-constructed libretto—half of which is Melville’s language drawn directly from the novel, and the other half his own—is a remarkable feat in its own right. The libretto includes seven scenes in both Act I and Act II, some of which are quite brief, plus a prelude and an epilogue. These scenes capture the essential narrative arc of the story, while avoiding all of Melville’s diversions and discursions.
Having had the privilege of sitting through many rehearsals of Moby in Dallas, and all six performances, I have had ample time to savor the diverse and memorable cast of characters, and the story of Ahab’s self-proclaimed madness and obsession. One of the most emotionally disturbing scenes in the opera is when First Mate Starbuck confronts Captain Ahab in his cabin in Scene 6, and Ahab pulls a musket off the wall (this is as described in the libretto; actually the weapon is behind Ahab’s desk in Foglia’s production) and points it at Starbuck’s head. To quote the libretto: “STARBUCK, certain that he is about to be murdered by a madman, falls to his knees. Not in subservience to AHAB, but to pray in his last living moments.” Starbuck is saved from Ahab’s wrath by a shout from the crew that the cabin boy Pip—who had been lost at sea following the previous whale chase—has been found. This surprise development gives Ahab the chance to reconsider, and he orders Starbuck “out of my sight!”
In Scene 7, Starbuck returns to Ahab’s captain, only to discover that Ahab is fitfully asleep. He notices that the musket has been left standing at the end of Ahab’s bed. Starbuck picks up the weapon, and sings, “Ah. He is sleeping. He would have shot me. / There’s the very musket he pointed at me. / Loaded? Aye. And powder in the pan.” Meanwhile, Ahab is whimpering in his sleep, like a child having a nightmare. Starbuck points the gun at Ahab’s head, but Starbuck’s religious faith, and loyalty to his Captain, prevent him from pulling the trigger, thereby losing a chance to save himself and the rest of the crew. Instead, Starbuck replaces the weapon at the foot of the bed, and leaves Ahab’s cabin. Morgan Smith, who played Starbuck, gave a stunningly powerful performance in this scene, making the internal conflict in the character believable and real.
In the first scene of Act I, Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, is threatened by a giant storm. Starbuck’s harpooner Queequeg falls ill, and young crew member Greenhorn calls for help. Greenhorn wants to take his friend Queequeg below for medical treatment, which would require Greenhorn to leave his post above deck. Ahab initially resists this idea, and other sailors offer to help by taking Greenhorn’s place. Ahab, wanting to save face, eventually allows Greenhorn to take care of Queequeg, and proclaims that he, himself, will man the masthead; in fact, he asks Starbuck to hoist him up personally. Starbuck, truly taken aback and amazed, sings “me?” Ahab answers cryptically, “Who else would I trust with my life?” The audience in each performance reacted very strongly to this moment, because they knew that Starbuck had just contemplated killing Ahab at the end of Act I.
So here’s the proverbial $64,000 question: Going back to Scene 6, was the musket loaded, or not?
At its face, the plot of these three scenes is straightforward. Ahab threatens Starbuck, and the sudden discovery of Pip breaks Ahab’s resolve in firing the musket and killing Starbuck. Starbuck returns to Ahab’s cabin in Scene 7, and finds the musket loaded—which confirms his fear that Ahab is capable of murdering him. However, this interpretation calls into question Ahab’s reason for rhetorically asking, who else he would trust with his life, in the storm scene in Act II. Is Ahab’s confidence based on a general belief in Starbuck’s loyalty as First Mate, Starbuck’s devout Quaker faith, or some other reason?
So vivid are these characters in Gene and Jake’s hands that I began to see an alternative explanation. Ahab is obsessed with revenge on the whale, and clearly mad (Ahab refers to himself as “Madness maddened!”), but he is also deeply charismatic and manipulative. He quickly wins over the crew early in the opera in his doomed mission to chase and kill Moby-Dick, but Starbuck is the sole holdout—and Ahab knows it. Ahab’s murderous tendencies are never focused on a single human individual; his obsession with the whale will ultimately kill all but one of his crew, indirectly doomed by Ahab’s fatal decision to “pull the trigger.”
In watching all of these performances, I came to wonder if the musket was not, in fact, really loaded and ready to be fired in Scene 6. In this interpretation, the three scenes described above take on very different meanings. In Scene 6, Ahab threatens Starbuck, but with an unloaded weapon. This act starts to give Ahab control over Starbuck, because Starbuck assumed the musket was ready to fire, but Starbuck’s life was never actually in jeopardy. In Scene 7, Ahab is only lightly asleep (or perhaps only pretending to be asleep), as he will have anticipated that Starbuck will return to confront him again. But by then, he has loaded the weapon, and left it easily visible for Starbuck to find. This ruse would accomplish two aims. First, it would confirm to Starbuck that his life was in jeopardy in Scene 6, and that Ahab would never divert from his plans to pursue the whale. Secondly, it would create a crucial psychological test for Starbuck. Ahab gambles that Starbuck’s religious faith, loyalty to his captain, and even devotion to his wife and son will enable him to control any homicidal urges. Ahab’s whimpering adds an additional opportunity to elicit sympathy, making it even harder for Starbuck to do what is necessary to end this nightmare, once and for all.
A far-fetched idea? Perhaps. But, consider the Storm Scene. Crucially, I believe that Ahab knows that by testing Starbuck, he has proven his loyalty, no matter how bitterly resented. Ahab also confirms that Starbuck will not cross certain moral boundaries to oppose him. Ahab’s comment “who else would I trust with me life” reflects the fact that he has already trusted Starbuck with his life, in a setting where Starbuck had no witnesses and could have shot him dead, or at least taken control of the ship. This alternative reading reveals one more layer of meaning in this great novel, and reinforces how nuanced, and ambiguous Melville’s central character proves to be. He may indeed lead an “earthquake life”, but there are elements in Ahab to be admired, feared, and even pitied.
The revival of the opera was a special moment in the company’s history, bringing together The Dallas Opera Orchestra, Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, and a heartfelt performance by 40 men of The Dallas Opera Chorus, carefully prepared by TDO Chorus Master Alexander Rom. Maestro Villaume gave a passionate performance from the podium that elicited excellent artistry from all the performers. (The women in our chorus, having been unavoidably left out of this seafaring opera with its sole female role, sang beautifully in the company’s concurrent production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin). Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris, who has described Ahab as his favorite role in the repertoire, gave dramatic and superbly sung performances, and I have never heard Stephen Costello sing better than he did as Greenhorn. We were privileged to have the composer and librettist in attendance for both the opening and closing performances; they were close at hand since they were preparing for the world premiere of their new opera It’s a Wonderful Life at the Houston Grand Opera. The Moby performances were universally well reviewed, and I know that many of us will continue to recall our favorite moments, and savor “Deep in the heart of the sea,” for a long time to come.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Sunday of each month in TheaterJones.com.
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