Moby Dick is Here to Stay

Set shot with mast and crew
Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell) tells the Pequod’s crew that ‘the fire of St. Elmo’ which illuminated the ship in a storm ‘is good luck’

Here’s a fact. Keeping up a blog, even with the low threshold of three-four posts per month, is hard. I had a nice steady flow going in December and January, but it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted, and the guilt it awful. Perhaps I’ve been overthinking it. My intention–in general–is to do advance leg work and to post well enough in advance of an upcoming production driving distance from CLE (or Met in HD) to have a chance of influencing someone to give the opera a try. Well, I missed the boat with Pittsburgh Opera’s marvelous production of Moby Dick. That ship has sailed. (OK, enough seafaring puns.) The production wrapped up on Sunday, March 25, so it’s too late to encourage you to go see it this time around, but I’m telling you, this is an opera that’s going to have some staying power. This is a rare contemporary opera that I feel confident is going to become a fixture in the standard repertoire.

Eight things I loved about Pittsburgh’s Moby Dick:

  1.  The libretto is great.  Gene Scheer has managed to turn this behemoth of a novel into a crisp script that covers a lot of ground in just about two-and-a-half hours. He does this by choosing just four days from the many months out at sea, four days that get to the heart of the Pequod‘s doomed voyage, selected to set the scene, show the passage of time, the restlessness of the crew, and the mania of their captain. And to get us to the fateful day when the crew finally meets the whote whale—and its fate.
  2. The music is great, and–pleasant surprise–a lot more melodious than a lot of contemporary writing.  Jake Heggie, who also composed the opera version of Dead Man Walking, is the real deal.  With just two lulls, one in each act, Heggie’s score drives this intense sea journey inexorably to its tragic conclusion.
  3. The set was amazing. Check out the picture above.  The main mast dominates the stage, letting us know we’re on a ship and creating a whole new plane for action.  The mast is surrounded by a turntable that was able to be moved qucikly not only to suggest a variety of spaces but also to create a sense of fast action during whale chase scenes.  The surrounding map of the world and dynamically lit sky made for a truly captivating backdrop for the action.
  4. Key performers were excellent.  Lead tenor Roger Honeywell, whose brooding Ahab lumbers slowly along in Act I, picked this piece up and carried in on his back in Act II.  In a chilling depiction of how easily a charismatic leader can lead a mob toward his goals, Ahab (below left) whips his crew into a frenzied chant of “Kill Moby Dick.”  Baritone Michael Mayes (below right, top) was amazing as Starbuck.  For me, the heart of the show was Starbucks’s aria at the end of Act I–the moral heart of the piece, and the moment of greatest heartbreak–when he comes upon a sleeping Ahab and passes on the opportunity to save the crew by murdering the captain. If only he had been able to stop Ahab’s manic quest here.  Finally, the relationship between Greenhorn (whom readers know as Ishmael) and Queequeg was tenderly rendered by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana.
  5. Use of dancers was very cool, especially when dancers took “thrown” harpoons in hand and leapt across the stage with them to suggest the trajectory of the harpoons and the subsequent “sleigh ride.”
  6. A few more personal notes.  A personal highlight was taking my friend Mark to his first live opera and having him enjoy it.

    Mark and I in Pittsburgh
    No one would have guessed when we became friends 38 years ago that Mark Altstadt and I would celebrate our 50th birthdays at the opera.
  7. Sitting next to the lovely Ashley Fabian, a soprano and resident artist who will sing Gretel in the main stage production of Hansel & Gretel in the fall. We just by chance ended up seated next to her, and she was gracious enough to chat with us before the curtain rose and during intermission, offering us an insider’s insight.  I’m hopeful The Opera Evangelist’s readers will get to know Ashley (left) via a guest post this fall! AshleyFabianHeadshot_(002)
  8. Having attended the workshop for educators with the amazing Marilyn Egan (below right), I really knew what to expect going in. Advance preparation really does enhance the experience, and Marilyn does a great job.

    Marilyn Egan Teaches Moby Dick Workshop
    Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Education, Marilyn Egan, PhD, leads a workshop for educators on March 1.

Having attended four operas in Pittsburgh over the past few years, Pittsburgh Opera is starting to feel like a home away from home.  It’s an easy drive from Cleveland, and if you can get past all the Steelers garb, Pittsburgh’s a really fun city.  I recommend putting an upcoming production at Pittsburgh Opera on your calendar!

–All production photos David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera.

 

 

 

 

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First Impressions: First-time Opera-goer Rachel Elson

On Saturday, February 24, I had the pleasure of taking Rachel Elson, a family friend, to her first opera.  We attended the live Met in HD presentation of Puccini’s La Bohème, featuring the amazing Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi.  Afterward, I asked Rachel to share some of her impressions.

Rachel Elson NYC Photo
Rachel Elson, mere blocks from the Met, in September 2017.

The Opera Evangelist:  This was your first experience of opera. What did you think?

RE:  What a cool art form!

I was fascinated by how intimate and emotional the performances were. Every scene was packed with intense feeling, positive or negative, in a way that radiated from the screen and through their voices. Because people express and perform emotions differently, I couldn’t help but feel that each actor was bringing their own unique qualities and interpretations to the role. This makes me think that it would be awesome to see the same operas performed with different singers or produced differently.

OE:  Many people don’t realize that operas today feature supertitles (or in the case of the cinema presentations, subtitles) offering simultaneous translation. Some people find subtitles off-putting. Did you have any difficulties following the story or getting used to the subtitles?

RE:  I occasionally ignored the English captions in order to construct meaning solely from the singing, body language, and facial expressions. This proved to be a surprisingly reliable way to follow the narrative, and it helped immerse me in the story, because I was able to create the story for myself as it progressed.

OE:  That’s really cool. I’m glad you gave yourself that opportunity. I like to do that sometimes, too. I wonder if that aspect of the experience was even more satisfying during the live HD broadcast, because camera work allows you to get a closer up view than at the opera house.

RE:  It was definitely worth seeing the Live Met in HD broadcast! I was surprised to discover how intimate the Met in HD experience was. I’m accustomed to the in-your-face nature of live, in-person theater performances, and I assumed that seeing a broadcast performance (although live) simply wouldn’t be the same. However, I felt no sense of disconnection between myself and the characters and narrative of La Bohème while I sat in the Cedar Lee Theater. With the screen occupying almost my whole field of vision, I felt deeply embedded in every scene and touched by the intense emotions of the opera; the impressive sound quality placed me right in the front row at the Met.

The incredible behind-the-scenes features during the intermissions of the live broadcast were another unexpected treat. Rather than removing me from Puccini’s Parisian landscape, the interviews and set backstage explorations brought me so much closer to the work as a whole. I gained insight into the process of production and added a huge amount of depth to my appreciation of the narrative itself. Much like reading about the plot and history of the opera in advance to its showing strengthened my understanding, these features were enlightening in a way I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

OE:  Was there anything you didn’t like? Were there aspects of the production that seemed weird or old-fashioned?

RE:  The pacing of the production seemed so strange. The first act was heavy on exposition, and accordingly very lengthy. The second act, however, I feel like nothing much happened and it was over very quickly (although I did really enjoy the vast set and chorus). Same as well with the third act. These were very, very dramatic scenes but it seemed like the story didn’t progress very much! In summary—much ado about nothing.

I felt that the opera was awash in “grand” feelings and lacking in complexity. I think that this might be the nature of opera itself (very grand, awesome), and for me it’s both a good and bad thing. I wanted more nuance to the narrative and feelings, as this would’ve brought the production more into the present, which would make it easier to relate to, but maybe that’s a difficult balance to strike when the narrative is full of such strong emotions (happiness, love, despair, jealousy).

OE:  These observations, I think, may be particular to La Bohème, which is structured more as a collection of scenes rather than along the lines of a traditional plot. (In fact, the novel on which Puccini drew inspiration for the opera, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, is comprised of a series of vignettes of the artistic life in 1830s Paris.”  I don’t think you’d have that feeling with every opera, especially most operas written after the height of the bel canto era in the early 19th Century.

So, will you come back?

RE:  Definitely. Overall I really, really enjoyed it.

OE:  What would you tell someone who’s never been to an opera to encourage her to attend?

RE:  Opera is a worthwhile challenge. It feels unusual in the powerful intensity of the emotions being performed on stage, and this moving quality is a huge draw that is hard to achieve in film or theater. Whether you see it live on stage or on the screen, the artistry, craftsmanship of the set, and strong narratives create a completely immersive experience and ease the introduction to a new kind of art. Most of all, it’s rewarding to see a relationships develop and a story slowly emerge from such beautiful music.