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  • All Astir
  • Samuel Otter

On October 10, 2012, the opera Moby-Dick, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer, had its San Francisco premiere, the first of eight performances at the War Memorial Opera House. The opera was first performed in Dallas in 2010 and then traveled to Adelaide (Australia), Calgary, and San Diego. I had the privilege of leading a panel discussion with the composer and librettist at Berkeley on the afternoon following opening night. I was joined by Robert K. Wallace (whose book Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century, with photographs by Karen Almond, will be published in April) and John Kapusta of the Music Department at Berkeley. Among other topics, we discussed the allure and the challenge of translating Moby-Dick to other forms of art, the ways in which Melville's book is and is not "operatic," the collaborative process, the choices made in moving from book to opera (such as setting the opera entirely at sea, having the action unfold in the present rather than in retrospect, and centering on the relationships between Ahab and Starbuck, Ishmael and Queequeg), and the composition of the vocal parts. The Moby-Dick opera is a compelling work of art in its own right and also a remarkable meditation on Melville's book. As I sportively proposed at the Berkeley discussion, the opera's creators have made Moby-Dick into a better novel than Melville did, if by "better novel" we mean a work with more focused plotting, symmetrical form, and sustained character development. Heggie and Scheer help us to see more clearly the story embedded in Moby-Dick about leaders and followers, fathers and sons, and the lost and the found, and their version alerts us to the novelistic satisfactions that Melville's book withholds, pressing us to think further about its intricate and multiple forms. They spoke eloquently about their collaboration, their fascinations with Moby-Dick, and the art and business of opera.

If you would like to see a taped version of the Berkeley discussion, you can find it on the web at You also can hear the opera set designer, Robert Brill, talk about his search for the most effective ways to represent the ship and the whale, with the aid of production slides; his presentation occurred during another event last October linked to the San Francisco opera premiere, this one at the California Academy of Sciences: The opera has been filmed in San Francisco for broadcast on the PBS "Great Performances" series this year or next, and releases are planned on CD and DVD. [End Page 96]

"Moby-Dick is everywhere," declared Nina Martyris in an October Huffington Post article. "Moby-Dick breaches ubiquitous at this moment," announced George Cotkin in a November blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (You can find the pieces at and The Heggie and Scheer opera is only one recent instance of a phenomenon—the resonance of Melville's book in U.S. culture—that continues to fascinate and currently is surging (and invites explanation).

The first New York City marathon reading of Moby-Dick occurred Nov. 16-18 (commemorating the first U. S. publication on Nov. 14, 1851) at three independent bookstores: WORD, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, in Soho; and Molasses Books, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We include in this issue's "Extracts" a report from Aaron Calvin on the events. The New York Marathon joins, of course, the annual reading marathons in Mystic Seaport, Conn., and New Bedford, Mass. (more on the latter below).

In late January, after 135 days, the web "Moby-Dick Big Read" concluded with a reading of the book's "Epilogue" by the poet Mary Oliver. Over more than four months, each of the book's chapters was read aloud and broadcast online in a series of downloads, free and accessible to the public at http://www. Organized by Philip...


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