Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the Twenty-First Century
By Robert K. Wallace; photos by Karen Almond; foreword by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer
University of North Texas Press; 224 pp. $45
Purchasing a souvenir program after a Broadway show rarely pays dividends of insight about the production you just saw. If you are lucky, flipping through its pages can rekindle a memory or two, but usually these books get filed away until the next garage sale. Robert K. Wallace's new coffee-table book, Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick, aspires to be more than a keepsake, but much of its content is similarly peripheral to appreciating its subject, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's successful 2010 opera based on Melville's classic novel. Yet, after years of interviewing the creators and studying their work, Wallace's intimate connection with the opera occasionally illuminates paths of discovery into this exciting work.
Not all major opera events warrant the souvenir-book treatment, but Moby-Dick is a deserving beneficiary. It is rare, indeed, that an opera production as brilliantly conceived as Scheer and Leonard Foglia's functions so seamlessly with score and libretto to form a unified whole. As with Peter Sellars's indelible vision for Adams's Nixon in China, it may take decades before operagoers experience Heggie's opera in a different staging.
Commemorating this modern Gesamtkunstwerk, Wallace has curated a visuals-laden book about Moby-Dick that chronicles the opera's gestation, creation, staging and premiere, while also attempting to unlock some of its secrets. The highly collaborative partnership of Heggie, Scheer and Foglia is explored at length, with great emphasis placed on Scheer's libretto, which is included in its entirety. Karen Almond's photographs of the opera — both in development and onstage — vividly convey the excitement and drama of the production. Yet the images, though clearly a driving force behind this project, are almost all too small. In fact, the cover image is the only instance in which Almond's work receives full-bleed, edge-to-edge prominence.
Subdued visuals, an awkwardly crafted timeline section and unending pull-quotes of artists lauding one another as "amazing" or "a genius" make for tedious reading, but persistent readers may find their rewards in Chapter 4, "Moby-Dick on the Opera Stage." This, the most compelling section of the book, finds Wallace sharing his perspective without the perfunctory shout-outs. His scene-by-scene and, at times, moment-by-moment analysis not only reveals the author's remarkable facility with the work but provides numerous specifics to listen for in Moby-Dick. His use of commentary in this section is also more convincing, as the creators' views and experiences are used to contextualize the author's own hearing. Though books such as Wallace's often get skimmed in opera-house gift shops, readers who take the plunge with this one will find some valuable nuggets within.
JEFFERY S. MCMILLAN
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