Superstorm on the East Coast, masterpiece out West

Albert ImperatoMon 5th November 2012
Superstorm on the East Coast, masterpiece out WestCall them Ishmael and Starbuck - backstage with Stephen Costello (left) and Morgan Smith before curtain at San Francisco Opera

As the US East Coast continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, San Francisco Opera staged its final performance of Moby Dick

Not exactly sure we’re I’m at right now – perhaps it’s one of the Dakotas? I know I’m about 35,000 feet in the air as I jet back to New York City. Below, in the late afternoon sun, is a vast expanse of rugged brown hills (could they be the famed Black Hills of South Dakota?). Not a house or even a road in sight down below. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was the surface of an alien planet.

I didn’t think I’d be on this flight. Less than a week ago, the killer super-storm named Sandy wrought havoc along the Eastern Seaboard. Lives were lost, billions of dollars in property damage was incurred, and many people lost everything they owned. I was among the lucky ones in Manhattan who didn’t even lose power, but my heart broke watching the devastation that descended upon so many people, and to so many familiar places. The beach towns in New Jersey where I spent so much blissfully happy time with my family over many summers when I was a youth were forever transformed – quite literally swept and washed away. The roller coaster at the Seaside Heights boardwalk, the first big amusement park ride that I ever took, was in pieces, some of them still standing in the sea. There are no words to describe the magnitude of the suffering in communities across lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens (whole blocks in Breezy Point first flooded and then burned) and, perhaps worst hit, Staten Island. To the north, in places like Westchester, thousands of trees were felled (where my sister and her family are among the hundreds of thousands of people there still waiting for the power to be turned back on).

Somehow, though, JFK airport opened soon after the last of the storm had passed, and on Thursday morning I was on a flight for beautiful San Francisco, where I was heading to catch the last performance of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s opera Moby Dick at San Francisco Opera. It felt so strange to be leaving New York at this terrible time, but the lure of this opera, which I first saw when it premiered at The Dallas Opera, was very strong, and I stuck reluctantly with my original plans. On the plane, which carried live television coverage from New York, I watched local news throughout the entire flight, unable to turn my gaze from the endless barrage of shattering images. The sight of neighbors helping neighbors was inspiring, but the epic scale of the devastation seemed to overshadow all else.

The California sunshine, and the warm company of my client, tenor Stephen Costello, provided greatly appreciated relief to my downcast spirits. Stephen plays a central character in Moby Dick, Greenhorn, who at the very end of the opera – and as the lone survivor of the voyage of the Pequod – renames himself Ishmael. He is both the narrator of the story, as well as a counterbalancing spiritual force to Captain Ahab. As Ahab’s whale obsession pulls him deeper into destructive irrationality and self-consuming vengeance, Greenhorn’s experiences on the ship – particularly his friendship with Queequeg, who opens his eyes to the wider world and its manifold ways – lead him to deeper self-awareness and an understanding of the transformative power of love.

Stephen told me that he and his colleagues were in a very emotional state on the eve of this last performance. Many of these same cast members had created the opera together in Dallas, and this performance in San Francisco would be the last time that many of them would be doing it together (there are further productions scheduled elsewhere, but a new crop of singers will be taking some of the key roles).

I wrote about Moby Dick following the premiere in Dallas (that post is still available on the Gramophone website), and the San Francisco Opera performance only heightened my first impressions. As I told composer Jake Heggie, who received a thunderous ovation – along with the entire cast, as well as conductor Patrick Summers – when he came out for a bow, this opera is every inch a masterpiece. I can’t think of any way that I don’t find it satisfying and enriching. Gene Scheer’s libretto distills the essence of this massive novel to utter perfection, and Heggie’s varied, sweeping and colorful score brings it to vivid life. There are no slack moments, no unnecessary diversions, and a plethora of captivating scenes that come together into a seamless, organic whole. There are memorable arias, duets, and choruses. The brilliant production by Leonard Foglia has plenty that dazzles, but never does it overwhelm or distract.

There’s no shortage of action in the opera Moby Dick, but it’s also richly philosophical, exploring a wealth of important and suggestive ideas about the widest range of human concerns. What is the purpose of our small lives amidst the vastness of the universe? Why do we choose to do what we do? When does determination to a cause become a destructive force? What is the purpose of religious certitude when human experience is so wrought with seemingly random and often-violent events? One of Greenhorn’s arias begins with the line, ‘Human madness is a cunning and feline thing’. This phrase immediately stuck in my brain and jostled there the day that followed. In fact, I had this aria, and so much else from the score, in my head the next day as I walked around the city.

And what characters! First credit to Melville, of course, but hats off to Heggie and Scheer for being so true to them, for devoting so much care in bringing them to life! The relationships between Starbuck (played splendidly by Morgan Smith, who also originated the role) and Ahab (played this time by Jay Hunter Morris, heroically taking on a role that Ben Heppner first introduced), and between Greenhorn and Queequeg (a deeply moving Jonathan Lemalu, who also created the role), are among the most compelling and moving as anything you will see on a stage.

Stephen told me afterwards that he found it hard to get through his arias as he fought back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. Having heard Moby Dick twice now I understand why this opera has been such a transformative experience for him. Happily, in addition to future performances of the opera that are already scheduled, public television will broadcast the opera sometime in 2013. I also hope the rumor is true that Moby Dick will have an audio release in the not too distant future.

I travelled out to San Francisco with a heavy heart, but Moby Dick elevated my storm-tossed soul.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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