7 things you should know about the opera 'Moby-Dick'

When author Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” was first published in 1851, it was a commercial flop. At the time, the novel was considered too long, too convoluted and perhaps too metaphorical for readers used to Melville’s straight-forward adventure stories. “Moby-Dick” achieved acclaim only when it resurfaced in the 1920s, praised by celebrated authors such as D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound and rediscovered for generations to follow.

Since the roaring ’20s, Melville’s whaling story has found its lasting place in the cultural zeitgeist.

“Moby-Dick,” a standard on most school reading lists, has been turned into countless screen adaptations, including John Huston’s celebrated 1956 film starring Gregory Peck and the upcoming film “In the Heart of the Sea” from director Ron Howard about the events that inspired Melville’s novel. The classic also inspired a 1990s musical, and of course, Melville’s words have been analyzed by scholars and students for decades.

“Moby-Dick” also inspired a triumphant, critically acclaimed opera, which opens at LA Opera (www.laopera.org) on Oct. 31. The opera will make what you learned in high-school English class come to life. Composer Jake Heggie’s opera takes you on an ocean journey, a spectacular feat involving elaborate sets, choreography and costumes. (Spoiler alert: Keep an ear out for the famous opening line of Melville’s novel, “Call me Ishmael,” which is uttered during the opera.)

Here are seven things you should know about the staged version of “Moby-Dick” at LA Opera.

The opera successfully squeezes 25 hours’ worth of reading material into a riveting three-hour performance. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer choose the most dramatic moments of Melville’s novel to add to their production’s wow factor.

Unlike the novel, “Moby-Dick” the opera takes place entirely at sea. A vast set is used for the main whaling ship, the Pequod, while projections depict smaller boats the crew boards to harpoon whales. Through the magic of theater, audiences are transported onto the high seas.

Pip is a “pants role.” The term refers to the tradition in opera of casting female singers to play roles of boys or young males. Creating cabin boy Pip (played by soprano Jacqueline Echols) as a pants role allowed for a seasoned female actor to tackle the pivotal character and help bring out Captain Ahab’s humanity. And yes, Pip really flies. Cast overboard and lost at sea during the opera, Pip is raised above the stage via a wire. The character then swims through projections of a blue ocean, wondering about his location at sea and in search of the Pequod.

Yes, that’s really a peg leg. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who plays Captain Ahab in LA Opera’s production, spends hours traversing the stage on a peg leg. This is a masterful feat, as enduring the leg contraption adds to the character’s obsessive behavior.

Melville’s story is narrated in retrospect by crew member Ishmael while Heggie’s opera is set in real time. Audiences experience the adventures of whaling and Ahab’s obsessive behavior through the opera along with the other characters. Don’t worry. Ishmael isn’t left on shore in this stage adventure. He’s in the opera but in a slightly different way than the book.

“Moby-Dick” is not the stereotypical opera where cast members plant their feet and sing their hearts out. It’s a physical piece that shows the athleticism and endurance demanded of sailors of the 19th century. You’ll see the physicality of the cast through climbing and sitting on “rungs,” set pieces situated at various heights on the stage to portray the actual height differences on a ship.

“Moby-Dick” has wowed audiences worldwide. Since premiering at Dallas Opera in 2010, the opera has been performed nationally at San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera and internationally at State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera. It has become a grand, contemporary opera, a tribute that Melville’s sea tale deserves.

“Moby-Dick” opens at LA Opera on Oct. 31 and runs through Nov. 28. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.laopera.org.

--Tribune Content Solutions for LA Opera

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