Kristine McIntyre has read “Moby-Dick” seven times so you don’t have to.
“I had to know the novel so I could know what was essential,” said McIntyre, who had resisted reading Herman Melville’s classic tale for years.
“Most contemporary American opera is issue-based,” she said. “But audiences come to expect a story. We’ll be telling them a story.”
That isn’t to say “Moby-DIck” doesn’t explore issues. “There is hyperrealism in the novel, but it’s also about big questions about God, the devil, friendship,” McIntyre said. As the characters travel from chilly Nantucket to the tropics on their two-year voyage, “there’s also a psychological/social journey and a journey into the heart of darkness” as their mission changes from commerce to vengeance.
“It can be a career-defining role … a role that consumes you,” said tenor Roger Honeywell, who will portray Captain Ahab. (Longtime Utah Opera fans might recall his portrayal of Jim Casy in “The Grapes of Wrath” 10 years ago.)
Because Honeywell has two working legs, a special harness cinches up his left leg behind him for each of the five performances (and several rehearsals), and a 10-pound wooden peg leg is strapped on. It’s as painful as it sounds, he said, especially considering Ahab must navigate steps and a rotating stage.
Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, on the other hand, said he’s trying to emulate his character, the harpooner Queequeg, whom he’s already played twice.
“He’s uninhibited about many things. I’m thinking about the rent, I’m thinking about health care … I’m thinking about booking my flight. Queequeg doesn’t care about that. He’s carefree. When he feels he’s about to die, he says, ‘Have the carpenter build me a coffin. I’m ready.’ Life and death are one and the same. … I’d love to be that guy.”
The music is challenging to sing — Ngqungwana said half-jokingly that “you need to take a search party to find your pitches” in spots — but both singers agreed it’s beautiful and rewarding. Conductor Joseph Mechavich, who has conducted “Moby-Dick” twice, went even further, calling it his favorite opera.
Scheer, the librettist, told The New York Times that about 50 percent of the words in the opera come straight from the novel; Honeywell marveled at the librettist’s incisive adaptation. “Enough can’t be said about Gene Scheer — to take a novel like ‘Moby-Dick’ and condense it to less than three hours is phenomenal.”
The opera premiered in Dallas in 2010. It was embraced by critics and audiences, with subsequent performances — the true test of a contemporary opera’s success — being staged all over the world, from Calgary, Alberta, to Adelaide, Australia.
Utah Opera is one of four companies that have pooled resources to create a new production of “Moby-Dick”; that is, they’ve commissioned a new set and costumes, all constructed in Utah Opera’s scene and costume shops near downtown Salt Lake City. (All four partnering organizations will use the costumes and set in their performances, but the singers, conductor and director won’t necessarily be the same.)
Costume designer Jessica Jahn gave every character a real-life 19th-century counterpart; the singers see photographs of these men every time they fetch their hats or shoes from the racks. “One thing that’s important for me is that each individual feel like a real person in American history,” she said. After executing her designs, the Utah Opera costumers weathered and distressed the clothing, made it appear blood- and oil-stained, and even added removable salt stains to the shoes.
“They did not have clothing from the Gap,” Jahn said.
Rom said he designed the opera’s abstract set, framed by a map of the Pequod’s voyage, to reflect philosophical as well as physical realities. “It’s amazing how little it takes to suggest a prow,” he said. “We feel this is stronger than a literal representation.” The viewer’s imagination, he noted, is a powerful thing.
In contrast to the epic world-premiere production, this one will make “Moby-Dick” accessible to a wider range of regional companies, Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth explained. For example, video projections played a prominent role in Dallas, but not all opera producers have the budget for such technology — or the stage space to accommodate the equipment. Painted backdrops will depict the sea, stars and sky instead. And the rotating disc that dominates Rom’s streamlined stage will be operated by the choristers who portray the crew of the Pequod. Movement has been choreographed by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company artistic director Daniel Charon.