From 135 chapters to under 3 hours of epic adventure, here’s the story behind Utah Opera’s new read on ‘Moby-Dick’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cast of Utah Opera's "Moby-Dick," Roger Honeywell as Captain Ahab, Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg and Joshua Dennis as Greenhorn, the narrator, who, unlike in the novel, doesn't ask us to call him Ishmael until the very end of the opera, come together on the large set.

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.

In addition to telling the story of Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on the legendary beast that cost him a leg, the 135 chapters of ”Moby-Dick” include notoriously detailed digressions about whaling, whales (in nature and in art), ropes, fire, even the color white. But she dived in, and was hooked, when Utah Opera hired her to direct its new production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s 2010 opera based on the novel. It opens Jan. 20 at the Capitol Theatre.

“Most contemporary American opera is issue-based,” she said. “But audiences come to expect a story. We’ll be telling them a story.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kristine McIntyre, the director of Utah Opera's upcoming "Moby-Dick," is a huge Melville nerd who has read the book seven times since Utah Opera hired her for the gig. Here, she works with Musa Ngqungwana, center, and Joshua Dennis on the set at the Capitol Theatre.

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.

“It’s a work of sheer pain. I can’t help but be informed by it,” he said. “It puts me in a very dark mood.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roger Honeywell navigates the stage of Utah Opera's "Moby-Dick" on a prosthetic peg leg. The singer, who portrays Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie's 21st-century opera based on the classic Herman Melville novel, has his left leg strapped behind him for every performance. He says the constant pain helps him get inside his character's head.

“It’s interesting to watch his frustration, which is the same as Ahab’s frustration, having been able-bodied and sailed for 40 years,” McIntyre said. “Ahab would not accept help. He’s always apart in that way.”

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.

“It’s an amazing, epic masterpiece,” he said.

“Jake Heggie is part of a movement that says it’s no longer completely unacceptable to use traditional harmony,” set designer Erhard Rom said. “You can’t go back to Puccini, but using tonal chords doesn’t make you a hack.”

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.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carpenters Tony Johnson, center, and Stephanie Ball work on stage construction in early December for Utah Opera's new production of "Moby-Dick," which will play in January 2018.

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.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Tarbet, a member of the chorus in Utah Opera's new production of "Moby-Dick," gets a fitting from costume designer Jessica Jahn.

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.

“Jake said he would shoot himself if we came out with a little boat on wheels,” McIntyre quipped.

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.

“I’m really interested in the human-driven aspect of this story,” McIntyre said.

Sing me Ishmael<br>Utah Opera presents Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” The opera is sung in English, but there will be Supertitles.<br>When • Opens Saturday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue Jan. 22, 24 and 26, with a 2 p.m. matinee Jan. 28<br>Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $15-$100; utahopera.org<br>In a nutshell • A sea captain leads a voyage of revenge against an enormous white whale.<br>Running time • 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission<br>Learn more • Heggie, Scheer and director Kristine McIntyre will discuss the work at a free event Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 4 p.m. in the University of Utah’s Thompson Chamber Music Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City. The public also is invited to observe a master class by Heggie and Scheer at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Thompson Hall. In addition, Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson will offer lectures an hour before curtain and artistic director Christopher McBeth will moderate Q&A sessions after each performance, all in the Capitol Room on the theater’s west side. Finally, the company has posted educational materials at utahopera.org/onlinelearning.

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