On the cover of its July issue, Opera News dubbed Jake Heggie "U.S. opera's most successful composer." It was an odd pronouncement for the in-house publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. As of last summer, neither the Met nor the main companies in America's two other largest cities had performed anything by Heggie, whose operas have hardly the reputation or reach of those by Philip Glass and John Adams.
But the last weekend was nonetheless a big one for Heggie. Though the Met and the Lyric Opera of Chicago demonstrate no Heggiean inclinations, Los Angeles Opera gave the local premiere of his "Moby-Dick" on Saturday night. The evening before, Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of Heggie's "Great Scott," a comic opera able to attract a great American cast led by Joyce DiDonato. Again in Texas in 2016, Houston Grand Opera will premiere Heggie's next work: "It's a Wonderful Life," based on the classic Frank Capra film.
Thus far, "Moby-Dick" — a Dallas commission to open the company's new opera house five years ago — has had its own pretty wonderful life. A composer of likably unchallenging opera tackled what many of us consider the most enduringly challenging and substantial work of American literature. With a libretto by Gene Scheer that tightly honors familiar plot features and gives traditionally operatic bearing to familiar characters and their interactions, Heggie's "Moby-Dick" won an immediate following.
Indeed, L.A. is a late California port of arrival for this white whale, which has already alighted on the lyric stages in San Diego and San Francisco. The latter production was filmed, broadcast on "Great Performances" and released on home video.
The highly tonal score is kind to audiences and kindly crafted for singers. Leonard Foglia's original and now widely traveled production uses projections that create graphic illusions of whalers on the waves. Ahab's angst is poured out via a heroic tenor in the proper Wagner way. Queequeg and Greenhorn (not called Ishmael) bond through ardent song. Starbuck is the moral conscious that operas have found of use through the ages. Pip, a mezzo, serves to gives youthful joy its pathos.
The old quip is that most people who claim to have read "Moby-Dick" really haven't. That kind of goes for this opera too. Rather than try to bring something new to Melville, Heggie, Scheer and Foglia are more interested in illustrating it, bringing it to literal life, or at least as literal as opera can be.
Film becomes an obvious inspiration. Computer graphics are reminiscent of movie titles from a few years back. Heggie's orchestral writing is of more use setting mood and scene than conveying dramatic argument. An ear worm-ready four-note motive pervades the opera in the way many a film composer would envy.
L.A. Opera does a good job with all this, better than San Diego or San Francisco. That is mainly because of James Conlon's impatient conducting. He finds what he can in Heggie's score and then urges on the three-hour opera. He becomes most excited when there is variety — a sea shanty to play with, a storm, the call of "there she blows." He deals within reason with the excesses of nostalgia and sentimentality.
Jay Hunter Morris, who has become associated with Ahab (although the role was written for Ben Heppner), brings a modicum of crazed commitment to the obsessed captain, but there is no real opportunity for going over the top. (The great actor Charles Laughton was a more operatic Ahab on old-time radio than Heggie's character.)
Joshua Guerrero is an earnest Greenhorn; Musa Ngqungwana, an earnest Queequeg. They make good mates. Morgan Smith's Starbuck is more tortured than Ahab, which makes him a dramatically good foil. Jacqueline Echols is a bright Pip. Malcolm MacKenzie's Stubb and Matthew O'Neill's Flask lighten things up. The rest of the crew and chorus fade into the woodwork or disappear up the masts.
A success, this "Moby-Dick"? That depends on how you define success. It comes almost like a tried-and-true roadshow to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Opera's highbrow equivalent of neighboring Center Theatre Group's recent "South Pacific" New York import. An opera production with such legs is far from common and thus impressive.
It so happened that L.A. Opera on Saturday night was also presenting a genuine touring show. The Kronos Quartet performed Glass' score to the silent film "Dracula" at the Ace Hotel. I missed it, but I have seen it other times. It is a bold theatrical experiment, with the performers lighted behind the movie screen as a way of making performance part of a screening, something that irks cineastes like my colleague Kenneth Turan. But, as with an updated opera production, Kronos' concept invites an audience to confront, for better or worse, predispositions normally taken for granted.
"Moby-Dick," on the other hand, is not irksome. Historically that has not automatically been a sign of operatic success.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 and Nov. 28; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 22.
Info: (213) 972-8801, www.laopera.org