San Francisco Opera | Composing Moby-Dick

Composing Moby-Dick

The creation of this opera began in early 2005, when the Dallas Opera contacted me about composing a new work as part of the inaugural season at the Winspear Opera House in 2010. At the time, I was at work on a piece with playwright Terrence McNally. He had been the librettist for our opera Dead Man Walking (2000) and we had been on the lookout for another big project. When I asked Terrence what he thought, he said “There’s only one opera I’m interested in doing: Moby-Dick.” I think I was as stunned as anybody. It seemed a gargantuan, impossible undertaking. But he is a great man of the American theater, and when I saw the knowing sparkle in his eye, I knew it was possible.

I had never read the book itself, but when I did, I realized how essentially musical and operatic it is. The charged lyricism of Melville’s writing is deeply influenced by Shakespeare and there is great theatricality. The characters themselves are Shakespearean, and the events so epic they seem biblical. The drama could certainly fill an opera house, and it struck me that the music was already there. I could hear musical textures, rhythms, orchestral and vocal colors as I considered it. The hardest part would be to craft a workable, stage-worthy libretto.

Terrence suggested three things off the bat: Ahab should be a heroic tenor, the action of the opera should be entirely on the ship, and the cabin boy Pip should be a pants role for a soprano—the sole female voice. And then about a year into the process, Terrence had to withdraw from the project for personal reasons. It was devastating. But as luck would have it, I had worked extensively with the gifted writer Gene Scheer. He is a prolific collaborator, and we had already created several song cycles, a one-act opera (To Hell and Back), and were in the process of creating a three-character opera (Three Decembers). Gene read Moby-Dick and thought deeply about what he might be getting into. I wanted to keep Terrence’s initial thoughts, which meant Gene would have to take on something already in process. He bravely agreed to join me.

About this time, we had the idea that the famous first line of the novel—“Call me Ishmael”— should be the last line of the opera. We could treat the novel as a memoir that would be written long after the events of the opera took place. This would give us enormous freedom to move events around, create moments and dialogues that aren’t in the book, but are in the spirit of the book, and would work well on the stage. The central journeys of the opera became immediately clear and the architecture started to take shape.

We started working in earnest in April 2008 on a trip to Nantucket, where the story of the book begins. On this remarkable island, Gene and I visited the whaling museum and met with the great author Nathaniel Philbrick, who makes his home there. It was his prize-winning novel, In The Heart of the Sea, that made everything jump to life for us. His book is about the true story of the Essex, the whaling ship rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 off the coast of South America. It was this legend that inspired Melville to write his novel, and it was Philbrick’s vivid, modern, human telling of it that made all of it seem terribly real to me.

Gene worked closely with our director, Leonard Foglia, who also served as our dramaturg: asking questions, helping us to trace a meaningful, cogent, and poetic journey. All the while, I was trying to find the musical language of the opera. I wrote a chant for Queequeg and about 60 additional pages of music. In December of 2008, in agony, I discarded everything I’d written. It was good, just not good enough. What was blocking me? I realized that all of the characters had become real to me— except for Ahab. And without Ahab, you don’t have Moby-Dick. I had been trying to write from the beginning—which is what I prefer. But I had to cast that aside. Halfway through the first act libretto was the great monologue “I leave a white and turbid wake.” And there was the aching human being—the fully formed individual. The music for Ahab emerged and the world of the opera cracked open for me.

After completing that aria, I was able to go back to the first measure and compose straight through Act One. Ahab was the tree from which all branches grew. A four-chord harmonic theme became the meat of the entire opera, and from that all musical, harmonic, and rhythmic motifs emerged organically. Gene had given me a solid architecture on which to build the opera. Act Two went quickly and in July 2009, I had a complete piano/vocal score.

A workshop in San Francisco was headed by our first conductor Patrick Summers, which led to further clarification of the story and score. After orchestration and completion of the score, the extraordinary cast and crew for Moby-Dick rehearsed tirelessly in Dallas in spring 2010, and miracle of miracles, on April 30, 2010, an opera based on Moby-Dick opened and shook the rafters of the new opera house.

Director Leonard Foglia on Moby-Dick
From Page to Stage: An Interview with Moby-Dick Librettist Gene Scheer