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  • Heggie & Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century by Robert K. Wallace
  • David Mence
Robert K. Wallace
Heggie & Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century
Forward by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer. Photography by Karen Almond. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2013. xii + 224 pages.

On May 10, 1849, at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City—mere blocks from where the Melvilles lived at 103 Fourth Avenue—William Charles Macready was due to take to the stage as Macbeth. The renowned English Shakespearean was, however, prevented from treading the boards by what Dennis Berthold describes in American Literature as an angry mob of “ten to fifteen thousand working-class New Yorkers [who] gathered outside the Opera House and pelted it with bricks and stones.” Twenty-two people were killed and thirty-eight injured that night when the National Guard arrived on the scene and opened fire on the crowd. Melville had already signed a petition alongside local literati Washington Irving, Cornelius Mathews, and Evert Duyckinck (although not the canny James Fenimore Cooper), urging Macready to continue his run despite catcalls and rotten eggs. Melville’s signature on the Macready petition was, Berthold writes, the next “logical step in his increasing identification with the cultural aspirations of the Whig elite, aspirations that centred on opera, Shakespeare, and Astor Place.” Imagine Melville’s reaction, then, were he to be told that his “whaling voyage by one Ishmael” would one day be transformed into a Grand Opera with ambitions to rival Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner? Or that his beloved Whale—commissioned by a consortium of companies from Dallas, Adelaide, San Francisco, San Diego, and Calgary—would receive its world premiere on April 30, 2010, at the newly built, multimillion dollar Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas?

The story of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick begins in 2005. Dallas Opera’s Jonathan Pell asked Heggie to write a work to inaugurate the Winspear Opera House, then under construction. Heggie nominated Melville’s vast, sprawling Whale as the tale he wanted to tell. (Heggie credits librettist Terrence McNally who reportedly said, “The only story I am interested in doing is Moby-Dick” [12]. McNally had to withdraw from the project and Scheer was brought on as librettist.) Choosing Moby-Dick signaled that this opera would [End Page 106] be definitively American, one that would speak back to the grand European tradition in its own voice. But what might such an opera sound like? American music is often associated with the American Songbook, in which classical harmonies mix with gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, and Broadway tunes, epitomized by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. It is most decidedly not an operatic idiom. Reviews of the Moby-Dick opera, some of which are collated at the end of the book, suggest ongoing confusion over whether the Great American Opera should sound American, European, or like a mixture of the two. While some reviewers celebrated “sonic seascapes to stand beside those of Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Wagner” and declared that “Moby-Dick is the evidence that great American operas are beginning to emerge,” others complained of a “musical language [that] is conservative and song-based” and lamented an absence of “wrenching dissonance,” such that the “overall tone of the opera is too upbeat for the subject” (217).

Moby-Dick is a work that needs no introduction in these pages. But stop and think for a moment about the challenge it presents to would-be adapters. The product of a restless, skeptical imagination, it roams across genres (poetic, dramatic, artistic, scientific) and contains digressions enough to make Holden Caulfield look like the kind of guy who gets straight to the point. It is a work that speaks both backward and forward in time: to Plato, the Bible, and Shakespeare, as well as to Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and The Simpsons (I still chuckle at the scene where the old sea captain, Horatio McCallister, slams down the telephone and growls, “Call me back, Ishmael”). To compress Moby-Dick into something that can be “acted and sung in...


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