Deep in the Art of Texas:

Albert ImperatoFri 14th May 2010
Ben Heppner as Ahab (photo: Karen Almond)Ben Heppner as Ahab (photo: Karen Almond)

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and other adventures in Dallas

Texas is famous worldwide for football and barbecues and cowboys and for just being huge, but opera may soon join that list of things that set the Lone Star State apart.

I’ve been to a few different and quite remarkable productions at Houston Grand Opera over the years, but it’s only been since our company began working with the Dallas Opera a year ago that I fully tuned in to just how ambitious (and successful) the city is being using culture to revivify neighborhoods, improve the quality of life in the city, and make it a magnet for visitors from across the country and around the world.

The newest jewel in the crown of the growing Dallas Arts District – a long stretch of property that is jam-packed with arts venues, theaters, museums, restaurants, and the justly celebrated Meyerson Symphony Center (long-time home of the Dallas Symphony) – is the stunning new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, which the Dallas Opera moved into at the beginning of the current season. It’s a gorgeous and intimate theater, inspired by the best of the European houses. A horseshoe-shaped design keeps virtually everyone in the theater right on top of the action. Luckily for me, I was there at the right time and was able to catch a Friday evening production of Madama Butterfly and, the next night, one of the world-premiere performances of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick.

I wished I had been able to write up my impressions of the place and productions on the spot, but a combination of a ridiculously busy schedule and an impending vacation (10 days beginning tonight – hallelujah!) have kept me focused on getting a lot of my “real” work done (Clients first, blog second – naturally!).  But before signing off for today I wanted to write down my most vivid memories…

First, Moby-Dick.  When Jake Heggie told me almost nonchalantly a number of years ago that his next opera project would be Melville’s leviathan novel, it took me a while to believe he was serious. Many people struggle just to get through the book: the thought of setting it to music seemed ambitious beyond all means. But judging from the results – from the roars of audience approval to the landslide of critical acclaim – it’s clear that Jake’s choice of subject matter was nothing short of perfect. There are many reviews of the production that you can read that do a better job than I could of laying out the case for this opera’s success (a simple Google search will reveal them, but we’ve gathered some of the best quotes in a news release that features a representative sample).  But I do want to say a few words myself – mostly as my way of thanking the creators for their magnificent achievement. 

First, Gene Scheer’s libretto expertly distills the essence of Melville’s visionary, poetry-infused prose: I found myself hanging on every word and rarely has a piece of literature come across to me as so perfect for operatic treatment. Heggie’s music immediately pulled me in and never let me go:  it had tunes, but none of them remotely cloying or obvious; orchestral color of consistent beauty and variety, and a sure-fire forward momentum – often aided by minimalist riffs that conjured up, but never mimicked, the best of Philip Glass – that is rare on the operatic stage. And what a production, overseen by director Leonard Foglia! The opening sequence is emblazoned in my memory: like a space traveler, the audience is plunged into a moving, star-filled firmament as Heggie’s orchestral introduction swirls the audience into the world of Ahab and his ship. I could go on and on about the visual marvels – the only recent opera production that dazzled me nearly as much was the Santa Fe Opera production of Thomas Adès The Tempest

The cast simply couldn’t have been bettered. Ben Heppner’s peg-legged Ahab was a tour-de-force of half-crazed fury; Stephen Costello’s Greenhorn was sung beautifully throughout, sweet and full of youthful innocence. Morgan Smith as Starbuck made one of the strongest impressions: I found his rich, powerful voice and stage charisma utterly compelling. The most memorable moment in the opera, for me, was when Ahab, having just revealed some of his threadbare humanity to Starbuck, finally spots The Whale. As Heppner’s Ahab musters his shipmates with his clarion cries to pursue and destroy his nemesis, Smith’s Starbuck implores him to remember the family Ahab has left behind and abandon the all-consuming quest. These two simultaneous visions coming together were unspeakably eloquent and profound to me. Credit Melville, of course, but the rightness of this moment seemed to me to embody that same sense of rightness that infused the entire opera, and for that the credit must go to Heggie, Scheer, Foglia and the entire cast (not to mention Patrick Summers, who conducted it all with total understanding and unflagging intensity).

To use the Broadway parlance: Moby-Dick is clearly a hit (more than one major critic has called it that).

Leaving the virtues of the Dallas Opera’s Moby-Dick isn’t easy, but I do want to briefly mention the previous evening’s performance of Madama Butterfly. I’d often heard great things about Francesca Zambello’s production, and it did not disappoint. Once again, there was some truly superb singing, particularly by Adina Nitescu in the title role (who is also a terrific actress) and Brandon Jovanovich, who tossed off Pinkerton’s high notes with seeming ease and power to spare. My colleague Philip Wilder and I paid the singers backstage a visit afterwards and the strapping Montana-born Jovanovich’s personality was no less compelling off the stage. His exuberance, huge smile, and energy (not to mention his large frame) cried out classic “all American” – think young Burt Lancaster in spirit and demeanor. He was clearly having a great time being an opera singer.

The next day, Dallas Opera Music Director Graeme Jenkins gave a talk for a group of visiting music critics and I can’t recall an artist or arts administrator doing a better job of explaining what his or her organization was doing in the coming season. Jenkins’ distinctly British humor, deep knowledge, and extraordinarily colorful delivery were a joy to watch. After the time I had in Dallas, I’m already planning my return visit.  

Heading to vacation now…back sometime after May 24!

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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