This was my Moby Dick Moment!
BACKGROUND: Washington National Opera premiered on the east coat the new American opera Moby Dick, February 22 to March 8. Written by composer Jake Heggie and featuring an English- language libretto by Gene Scheer based on Herman Melville’s 19th-century literary classic.
I have never read Moby Dick, so I was literally thrown into an ocean on this one: Where to begin before I went to show?
As an aside, most reviews tell you about what the reviewer saw but first I want to show you what I saw and heard (something that is the miracle of the web that we can not do in print) so I am posting the selections the Kennedy Center put on line.
Watch and Listen
WNO Commentary: Moby Dick 1 of 7: Introduction and Prelude: Before dawn, on the deck of the Pequod (audio only)
WNO Commentary: Moby Dick 2 of 7: From morning to night on the ocean: The crew and their captain (audio only)
WNO Commentary: Moby Dick 3 of 7: Three months later: The whaling business, risks and confrontations (audio only)
I started by asking others about what they thought of the book.
Have you ever Read Moby Dick?
Maybe this is not the greatest pick up line or conversation starter but I have discovered recently that it is a question no one can resist answering.
There is no simple yes or no response. There is always some explanation, such as
“Yes, when I was a kid,”
Really? Half of it is about the 19th century whaling industry and half of it is a bible for those who believe in predestination explained everything whether we liked it or not.
There is the humble “No, but I knew someone who tried once.”
So, did you like it.
The most truthful answer I have heard was, “Well you aren’t suppose to like it.”
One woman said “I hated it!” This is a good choice because Melville is supposed to have said to a woman friend that (not only did he not want women in the book) he did not want women to read it.
Then I ask, how many pages was it?
Some people say a lot, maybe 900.
I have googled Amazon editions. The best I come up with is the Penguin complete original with 754 pages some of which are probably blank sheet.
I am beginning to see this is the question that should be used in lie detectors.
I am suddenly happy about having gone to a Catholic school where Moby Dick with its thunderous doctrine of predestination would have been condemned as heresy. (There was the the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum of such books then, but apparently Moby Dick was both too long for anyone to read and American so why bother to put it there.)
I ask myself So why Moby Dick?
I found a treasure of a book by Nathaniel Philbrick who addresses that very question, Why Read Moby-Dick? It is clear that Moby Dick whether read or not remains fixed as a symbol of American literary effort to be epic.
Besides reasons based its own merit, it has passed all all its initial requirements that are cherished by aspiring writers who like to remember that it was not well received at the time.
It has provided further work for other industries like the grinding academic halls where it is placed on the mantle between Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner, and for the historians who see it as a prophetic work of the Civil War, the war on terrorism and he doom of destroying mother nature in our own time.
Ahab has been a screen role for both John Barrymore and Gregory Peck. Set designers got to create that great ship of a pulpit for Orson Welles to thunder forth in what is equal to the special effects when Ahab does meet his whale at the
end of the movie.
And let us not forget --Starbuck has given his name to a coffee chain.
If this isn’t epic scope--well can the same be said for Beowulf for instance?
But I digress.
Dear reader, if you are still with me, this is my message.
BOTTOM LINE: There is a new answer to that question Have you read Moby Dick?
And that is for us, the audience of thousands who can say now, No, but I have seen the opera.
And if asked But why see Moby Dick the opera?
The answer is not mine, but in that previews with which I started: musical moments both lyrical and dramatic, scenes both highly personal and broadly universal, themes that as old as mankind but presented with the aids of the latest technology.
There is another answer. I woke up one morning hearing one of the melodies from Moby Dick. And after I left another epic-into-opera production, The Met’s production of Borodin’s Prince Igor this week, I heard someone loudly singing its hit song in the Metro. Moby Dick is a new opera for sure, and its place in the opera pantheon is not secure, but that I still hear it is, well reason enough for now.