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Minor Scale

A new, smaller production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick arrives at Utah Opera.
By Matthew Sigman 

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Technician at work on the new Moby-Dick in Utah
All photos courtesy Utah Opera
“Audiences can tell whether something is thrown together or if it’s cohesive.”
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Set elements in the Utah Opera scene shop
All photos courtesy Utah Opera
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Building the set in Utah
All photos courtesy Utah Opera

THE ORIGINAL PRODUCTION of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick was a spectacle worthy of Melville’s gigantic beast. With a massive replica of Ahab’s Pequod, a flying Pip, a chorus of mateys, ingenious projections and Heggie’s gale-force score, director Leonard Foglia unveiled a grand opera suitable to big houses with big budgets. Alas, after its maiden voyage (2010–12) to the consortium of companies that commissioned it—Dallas, San Francisco, Calgary, San Diego and South Australia—some of the wind went out of its sails.

“It was well-received, and the production was mind-blowing, and all these companies asked if they could do it,” says Heggie, “but one by one, as they learned what it took to present it, they dropped out.” The financial, logistical, technical and labor requirements were simply beyond the capacity of most companies. Heggie hoped for a “reimagined production” that would create more regional performance opportunities. On January 20, his ship will finally come in when Utah Opera gives the premiere of a new Moby-Dick scaled to accommodate a broader array of opera companies. Three companies have already joined Utah as coproducers—Pittsburgh Opera, Opera San Jose and Chicago Opera Theater.

Audiences needn’t worry that Heggie and Sheer’s sea epic will be watered down. Moby-Dick is still big. It’s the budget that got small. As directed by Kristine McIntyre, with scenic design by Erhard Rom, the new production sheds spectacle in favor of intimacy. Under a backdrop of nautical charts and star maps, a central mast rotates to define scenes and allow intimate close-ups of character. An accordion-like outer shell, which can expand and contract to fit stages of all sizes, suggests the claustrophobia of ship life amid the vastness of the ocean. 

“The size of the event doesn’t necessarily reflect the size of the ideas,” says Rom, who regularly designs for a wide range of American and European companies. “The goal of creating a less laborious and less expensive production did not make me feel like we were diminishing the artistic value of what we might be able to create. In a way, when you are not trying to do realistic scenery, it frees you to be more poetic than literal.” 

How the whale will be revealed is a coup de théâtre Rom prefers not to spoil before the premiere, but he notes that onstage, as in life, the part can be as terrifying as the whole. “When you see a whale, you only see part of it,” he says. “That’s what makes it terrifying. Your imagination fills in the rest. What people can conjure is more powerful than papier mâché.”

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Erhard Rom’s design for a scene in Act I of Moby-Dick
All photos courtesy Utah Opera

Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth initiated the production, which the company is also building. “We have just the right facilities and personnel to create something interesting and accessible to other companies,” he says. Utah is among the few companies still able to sustain a full-time, year-round production studio. In addition to creating its own productions of new and standard repertoire, Utah builds for other companies, many of whom have closed their shops in the wake of austerity measures.  

Rom celebrates the rare opportunity to construct a new production with guaranteed follow-on performances that will allow the mechanics to be refined with sustained artistic integrity. He recognizes that the reality of the opera business is such that most companies rent sets and costumes “cafeteria-style,” but he believes the absence of a united scenic vision diminishes the artistic experience. “Audiences can tell whether something is thrown together or if it’s cohesive,” he says. 

Heggie has been in continuous dialogue with McBeth and McIntyre. “You want to make sure that the production doesn’t interfere with any of the smaller or larger stories going on, and that the ergonomics allow for the voices to project,” he says. His greater concern is mediocrity in directorial vision. “The only time I really don’t like it is when I feel like there isn’t a bold statement. There isn’t something new explored. If you are going to do a new production, there has to be something to learn.” He lauds Kristine McIntyre, a frequent interpreter of his work, as “a responsible and big-thinking artist,” and describes a recent production of Dead Man Walking by Rom as “jaw-dropping.”

While the Moby-Dick score was “locked” in 2012, and the full seventy-five-piece orchestration will be used for the Utah and Pittsburgh performances, Heggie has authorized a reduced score for fifty musicians for future productions. More than simply cutting instruments, the task requires an artful reassigning to retain the soundscape and sustain the dramatic pulse. “It will not affect the length or dramaturgy in any way,” says Heggie, who has entrusted the job to Cristian Macelaru, the original assistant conductor on Moby-Dick back in 2010. 

There is precedent for reimagination as reignition, most notably with John Adams’s Nixon in China. After the premiere of Peter Sellars’s bombastic production at Houston Grand Opera in 1987, with follow-on performances by co-commissioners, the number of U.S. stage productions sputtered. Then, in 2004, a scaled-down production directed by James Robinson for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 775-seat theater proved so artistically successful and financially feasible that American companies of all sizes embraced it. The opera took off.

When Houston revived Nixon last season in its 2,200-seat house, rather than bring back the Sellars production, it opted for Robinson’s. Bigger things, it seems, can indeed emerge from smaller packages. spacer 

Matthew Sigman is a three-time recipient of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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