San Francisco Opera | Director Leonard Foglia on Moby-Dick

Director Leonard Foglia on Moby-Dick

How did you come to work on Moby-Dick and what was the early process?

We were getting ready to premiere Three Decembers in Houston (2008) and very close to the end of the process when Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer approached me about Moby-Dick. It was impossible for me to say no to the challenge of staging Moby-Dick, but even harder to pass up the opportunity to work with Jake and Gene again. Nothing had been written at that point, so I was part of the project from the very beginning and the three of us worked through it as a team.

I work on a lot of new pieces, and I’m often with them from the start. In this particular process with Moby-Dick, we all found our way through this massive book together, looking at it from three distinct points of view: Gene the words, Jake the music, and me concentrating on the structure of the story.

Had you ever read Moby-Dick before your involvement in the project?

I had read it a long time ago. After Jake and Gene asked me to participate, I went to a used bookstore in Houston and picked up a copy and started marking it up. I’ve bought fancier copies since then, but I still have that copy with me in rehearsals everyday.

My first reaction when I started rereading the book was, “Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into?” Because when I first looked at it from a dramatic point of view it seemed to be short on plot and very long on detailed descriptions of whales and how to tie a knot, etc. It wasn’t until the second time through, with Gene’s guidance, that I began to understand the inner conflicts of these characters. And the conflicts contained in Moby-Dick are some of the biggest struggles that exist for all of us.

Many novelists today are heralded as trailblazers when they experiment with literary form, but look at what Melville did 150 years ago, and imagine what it must have been like to read Moby-Dick back then! It was ultimately freeing not to be tied to traditional form.

How did you bring the conflicts of the characters out in this story that doesn’t have a “traditional” plot?

The key is to always make sure it has an emotional arc, and each moment must connect to the next emotionally. Melville does this in the book, and that’s why you keep reading it despite the fact that it goes in and out of these vastly different narrative forms. It’s emotionally connected all the way through, and that’s what we’re going for in the opera—that emotional connection.

What was your approach in working with the design team?

At the early stages, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to stage this piece. I don’t get any sense of the visual until I hear the music. And when I heard the prelude, which has no action but contains many of the themes and motifs, that’s when I started to get a visual sense.

Then I sat down with the designers. I initially wanted to deal with the notion of infinite space, the way a ship is floating in the middle of an ocean. Our projection designer Elaine McCarthy and I talked about micro vs. macro, for example how pictures of tiny bubbles underwater can resemble stars in the sky.

Robert Brill and I started with some very abstract notions about the set, and one of our first conversations was about perspective. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the story rather than watching it, seeing it from the characters’ point of view. And there were moments in the story, like when pip is lost at sea, that the ship would have to vanish. That really freed us up in conceptualizing the stage environment.

This is the fifth time Moby-Dick has been produced in less than three years. How has this opera evolved since its premiere?

By producing Moby-Dick in five cities, we’ve had the luxury of time. Time to step away, time to rethink, time to live with the piece. Nothing can replace time in the creative process. It’s the chance to keep going deeper, strip away and get more detailed. Just the other day, Jay [Hunter Morris] and I were discussing a moment, and he had a realization about playing Ahab that never occurred to either of us before. He arrives here in San Francisco at such a solid and powerful place in his portrayal of Ahab because of the time he’s had to inhabit the character.

When you’re working on a world premiere, every day brings you new information. Your cast is singing it for the first time. then it is staged and suddenly it is in three dimensions, then the physical production, which in this case includes projections and animation as well, is added to the mix. Each step brings surprises. Then finally the orchestra arrives. Thank goodness that is not my job and we had the great Patrick Summers, who is also conducting here in San Francisco, leading that part of the ship. All these wildly talented people are adding their expertise to the opera and my job is corralling everyone into one vision so we are all telling the same story. Then the very first performance arrives and you get to see the audience’s reaction. There’s nothing as scary and as thrilling as watching that first audience walk into the theater. I am always very moved by that. here are all these people that took an evening out of their lives, paid for tickets, got dressed up, and trust us to give them something worthy of their time. I take that very seriously.

Chasing a Dark November
Composing Moby-Dick