San Diego Opera presents a whale-scale production

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville’s great American novel, was something of a flop when first published in 1851. The author’s lifetime earnings from the American edition came to less than $600.

But lately the great white whale has been making a comeback. “Moby-Dick” is currently available in hardcover, paperback, audio- and e-book editions, and a new TV-version of the movie (now on DVD, with William Hurt as Ahab) was released in 2009, the same year as “Ahab’s Wife,” a bestselling novel spun off a single paragraph in the original book. Another bestseller “Why read Moby-Dick?” appeared a few months ago. There’s even a Moby-Dick video game.

And the greatest of all these whale sightings is coming soon, thanks to San Diego Opera. On Saturday, the acclaimed whale-scale production of “Moby-Dick” that premiered in Dallas in 2010 will have its West Coast premiere, complete with Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who created the role of Captain Ahab in Dallas, and director Leonard Foglia, recreating the original production.

Co-commissioned by five opera companies — Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Calgary and the State Opera of South Australia — “Moby-

Dick” has been called “achingly beautiful, magnificently sung and gorgeously staged.”

The Look

Robert Brill, who created the scenic design, has designed several sets for La Jolla Playhouse — most recently, “Jesus Christ Superstar” — often working with director Des McAnuff. He did the sets for McAnuff’s 2007 production of “Wozzeck” at San Diego Opera, as well as operas, plays and ballets around the country.

Projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, whose credits include “Wicked” and “Spamalot” on Broadway, also worked with composer Jake Heggie on “Dead Man Walking.”

The Music

Jake Heggie wrote his first opera, “Dead Man Walking,” in 2000, when he was composer-in-residence at San Francisco Opera. Praised for his “surging melodies,” he composed six other operas before “Moby-Dick,” whose score, along with Gene Scheer’s libretto, was hailed as “powerful and emotionally irresistible.”

And Ben Heppner, whose career includes a long association with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, won Dallas Opera’s Artist of the Year award for his performance as Ahab.

The Staging

Leonard Foglia, who directed “Dead Man Walking” and three other operas by Heggie, created the original production of “Moby-Dick.” His many Broadway credits include “On Golden Pond” and “Master Class,” the Terrance McNally play about Maria Callas. (McNally was the librettist on “Dead Man Walking.”) He also created the original New York production of Anna Deveare Smith’s one-woman show, “Let Me Down Easy,” seen last year at San Diego REP. And in his spare time, he writes mystery novels, too!

Foglia started out as the dramaturg on “Moby-Dick” three years before the premiere, working with Gene Scheer to establish the arc and characters of the piece.

“Jake says he can’t write unless the words inspire him, and Gene’s libretto is spectacular,” Foglia said. “I knew it needed a cinematic approach, but it wasn’t until I heard the score that I had any sense of what the opera should feel like or look like. The biggest challenge was the whale hunt, which set the style for the whole production. It took about a year before we settled on the design.”

Foglia noted that this is only the opera’s second showing in the U.S. “So it still feels new, and many opera companies will be coming here to see it,” he said. “I’m so happy and proud to be here, in a city that’s so open to us.”

If you go

What: ‘Moby-Dick’

Where: San Diego Opera, Civic Center Plaza, 1200 Third Ave.

When: Feb. 18, 21, 24, 26

Tickets: $50-$275

Box Office:

(619) 533-7000

Website: sdopera.com

If you don’t go

‘Moby-Dick’ will be broadcast live at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM, and online at kpbs.org

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