San Francisco composer Jake Heggie may not have been the first to brave the roiling oceans as a setting for a major opera. Richard Wagner went there well before him for "The Flying Dutchman" in 1843, and Benjamin Britten rang in with the harrowing "Billy Budd" more than a century later.
But Heggie's venture, we warrant ye mateys, is by far the biggest and boldest. Like Britten before him, he turned to the works of author Herman Melville for inspiration. But in tackling the gargantuan "Moby-Dick," he and librettist Gene Scheer had a whopping 212,758 words -- many of them devoted to maritime minutiae of varying degrees of interest to us landlubbers -- to wallow through before coming up with a cogent, dramatically convincing, seaworthy vessel.
By most accounts so far, the two have triumphed. "Moby-Dick" has reeled in rave reviews since it debuted in 2010 in Dallas, where operagoers interrupted the first act on several occasions with thunderous applause and ticker-taped the stage with a shower of their torn-up programs. It has subsequently been staged in Calgary, Alberta, San Diego and at the State Opera of South Australia, where just last month it was named best opera (and director Leonard Foglia named best opera director) at the annual Helpmann Awards for Performing Arts.
When San Francisco Opera, co-commissioner of the work, brings it to the War Memorial stage on Wednesday for an eight-performance run, many of its seasoned
Four singers who did appear in the Dallas world premiere are re-creating their roles for the San Francisco production: American tenor Stephen Costello, making his debut here, won't be singing "Call me Ishmael," because his character has been renamed Greenhorn, for obvious reasons. Baritone Morgan Smith returns to the role of the first mate Starbuck; Jonathan Lemalu, a New Zealander of Samoan heritage, reprises his tattooed harpooner Queequeg, and young soprano Talise Trevigne, also making her debut here, appears as cabin boy Pip.
Robert Brill's imaginative sets, Jane Greenwood's costumes and Elaine McCarthy's projection designs will be deployed to render the whaling world with the same verisimilitude mounted in Dallas, which the New York Times review summoned up as "staging that ranged from striking to near miraculous."
San Francisco Opera, obviously proud to have been among the five co-commissioning organizations, is ushering in its production with a lineup of more than a dozen ancillary events all over the Bay Area. I'm sad to inform you that the screening of the classic Gregory Peck film version of "Moby-Dick" on the historic sailing ship Balaclutha at the San Francisco Hyde Street Pier is behind us now, but you still have time to catch a sea chantey sing-along for free in the same location at 8 p.m. Saturday.
San Francisco's rowdy Litquake festival has a "Thar She Blows! From Stage to Page" free event scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in the fifth floor Chorus Room at War Memorial, where San Francisco State professor and author Geoffrey Green will be talking with librettist Scheer. And those curious folks from the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis will be plumbing Ahab's subconscious at an "Opera on the Couch" session at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza at 5 p.m. Oct. 21, immediately following that afternoon's matinee performance of "Moby-Dick."
Performance details: "Moby-Dick" runs Oct. 10-Nov. 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. Tickets, $22-$340, are at 415-864-3330 and www.sfopera.com. Standing room tickets, $10 cash, go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance.
Contact Sue Gilmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.