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Avoiding Melville’sVortex: A Conversation With Performance Artist Rinde Eckert ROBERT K. WALLACE Northern Kentucky University n June, 2000, a new voice entered the world of Melville performance art. This voice sings, composes, talks, and inhabits a rambunctious body. It belongs to singer Rinde Eckert, who composed the music and libretto for the opera And God Created Great Whales and created its lead role, Nathan, an ambitious piano tuner who is himself composing an opera based on MobyDick . Nathan suffers from a degenerative nerve disorder from which he is losing his memory. He is aided in his race against time by Olivia/Muse, the only other performer on stage. Olivia is an operatic diva whose piano Nathan has occasionally tuned. In his creative crisis, she becomes his living Muse, challenging , chiding, and inspiring him. Her embodied voice, sung by Nora Cole, becomes Nathan’s alter ego and saving grace. His only other auditory assistance comes from the voice on a pre-recorded tape, outlining various steps to be taken at each progressive stage of his disease. Nathan’s real-life interactions with the audiotape and his living Muse frame and punctuate the passages we see and hear from his Moby-Dick opera. He and Olivia/Muse act and sing extracts from the entire sweep of Melville’s story, from Nathan’s “Call me Ishmael” at the beginning to Olivia’s “great shroud of the sea” at the end. Eckert and Cole created the two principal roles in a trial run of And God Created Great Whales at the Factory Theater in New York in June 2000. Its immediate success with audiences as well as critics led to an Off-Broadway run at 45 Bleecker Street in September. By the end of that month it was clear that Eckert’s opera is a major contribution to American theater as well as to Melville performance art.’ The June performances at the Factory Theater were over before I learned about them, but I did review the September 23 performance at 45 Bleecker Street (see Extracts 120,p. 18).Like other reviewers, I was immediately impressed with the singing and acting of Eckert and Cole, with the Reviews of the June production included Don Shewey, “Not Moby-Dick but Whale-ish,” New York Times,June 11,2000, pp. 4,6; D.J. R. Bruckner, “A‘Moby-Dick to Make All Opera Funny,” New York Times, June 17, A15, A25; and Michael Feingold, “About this Whale...” Village Voice, June 20, 2000, p. 83. For a unique angle on the September production, see MargoJefferson, “As Melville Told Marlene, the Muse Leads the Music,” New York Times, September 18,2000, p. B2. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 8 3 W A L L A C E A N D E C K E R T humor and pathos of Nathan’s situation, with the strength of the libretto as a dramatic structure, with its cogency as a critique of operatic tradition, and with the wild whimsy of such production details as a piano wrapped in a whale line and a composer wearing tape recorders around his neck. More specifically as a Melvillean, I had a rare range of pleasures to savor in the excerpts from Nathan’s opera: the terrifying power of Father Mapple and Captain Ahab in arias sung by Eckert, the piteous fragility of Pip’s “Shenandoah” solo in Eckert’s falsetto range, the bumptious vitality of the New Bedford street vendors’ song shared by Nathan and Muse, their operatic pathos as the ship leaves shore, their fluid rocking of bodies and voices as they sway to the cadences of the lee shore. Such vocal transformations of narrative moments are true to the novel in both inspiration and characterization, but Eckert’s opera strikes even deeper Melvillean chords in its more elusive and abstract dimensions. We feel this in the abrupt juxtapositions between Nathan’s opera and his life, in the courage with which Eckert honors Melville’s story by departing from it, and perhaps most...


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