Seeking adventure may mean looking for trouble, but how much trouble did you have in mind? Five years ago, when the Dallas Opera began planning its move to the luxurious new Winspear Opera House, the company's artistic director, Jonathan Pell, approached the composer Jake Heggie to commission an opera for the inaugural season, with all the risks such a project entailed. Not missing a beat Mr. Heggie told him, "I want to set 'Moby-Dick.' "
Mr. Pell swallowed hard and asked, "Anything else?" At the literal level, Herman Melville's great American novel is all about the sinking of a ship, shattered by a great white whale. On the level of metaphor, it depicts Promethean Man in revolt against the Almighty.
The idea was originally proposed by the playwright Terrence McNally, the librettist of Mr. Heggie's first opera, the international hit "Dead Man Walking," a death-row docudrama that had its premiere in San Francisco 10 years ago.
"I was taken totally by surprise," Mr. Heggie, 49, said recently from Dallas, where the creative team and a high-powered cast were gathered for the final push to the premiere of "Moby-Dick" on Friday. "How bold! But shouldn't opera be bold? Terrence is such a brilliant man of the theater. When I looked into his eye, I knew the thing was possible. My answer was a big yes and a gasp of amazement, all at the same time."
On reflection Mr. Pell recognized that there was no real alternative and brought in the San Francisco Opera, the San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera and State Opera of South Australia to share the commission. "We talked about other ideas," he said. "But I could tell nothing else would inspire Jake in the same way."
Inspire and terrify. By December 2008, counting down to a workshop in San Francisco that August, Mr. Heggie had thrown away 50 pages of music and kept 6 he thought he could use. The breakthrough came when he cracked Ahab's first aria.
"When I write an opera, at a certain point the characters start singing to me," Mr. Heggie said. "I never doubted that the music was there. Ahab is the trunk from which all the other branches grow. When I had the aria, I had found my musical world. I could go back to the beginning and write the two acts of the opera straight through, very quickly. But this also is my first piece where I feel there has been a physical cost, an exhaustion, a feeling that I'm older. 'Moby-Dick' deserved that."
Mr. Heggie had to embark on his journey without Mr. McNally, who had lung cancer. But in the librettist Gene Scheer and the director Leonard Foglia he had other longtime, trusted partners. With opening night three weeks off, Mr. Foglia was wrestling with the consequences of early counsel he had given as dramaturge.
"Don't say, 'Oh my God, how will we do that?' " Mr. Foglia remembered telling Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer as they began. "Just write it as you want it. Be free."
"Now I have to sink the ship in eight bars of music," Mr. Foglia added. " 'Pequod sinks.' Next! We move on."
Mr. Heggie is not the first composer to have felt the pull of Melville's prose. ("Moby-Dick" has given rise to many symphonic, choral and multimedia pieces, as well as at least one previous opera, by Armando Gentilucci.) For Mr. Scheer a major test was to capture the rugged Shakespearean music of the author's voice.
"The characters are real people, and I wanted them to sound like real people of their time," Mr. Scheer said. "Wherever I could use Melville's language, I did. Probably 50 percent of the libretto is taken directly from the book. But the voice of the narrator is gone. That's in the music."
Listeners waiting for the famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael," should not hold their breath. As T. Walter Herbert, president of the Melville Society, explained at a recent symposium on the opera, to appreciate the apocalyptic force of those words, we might imagine a contemporary American novel beginning "Call me Saddam." In the opera the character has suggestively been renamed Greenhorn. For the record, the word "greenhorn" occurs twice in the book as a common noun, applied to someone else.
Extracting a taut arc of story from Melville's notoriously digressive text posed another challenge. (Typical chapter headings include "The Whale as a Dish" and "Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton.") Mr. Scheer has focused the action on four characters: from below deck, the footloose Greenhorn and the exotic first harpooner Queequeg, cannibal and peddler of human heads; from the officers' quarters, Ahab and his stalwart first mate, Starbuck, a Quaker and a family man, who for a time manages to keep Ahab's suicidal obsession with the whale in check. On paper the adaptation looks shipshape, embedding compact dramatic incidents and scenes of high adventure in a sweeping epic tapestry.
As a theater composer Mr. Heggie acknowledges many godfathers: Benjamin Britten, Americans like Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber, and from the French school Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. More recently, to his surprise, he has found Verdi and Wagner flowing into the mix. Still, he was relieved that at a first presentation of the score, no one piped up to point out quotations, intended or otherwise.
"That's not the way you want to go," said Mr. Heggie, who writes for general audiences, not future doctoral candidates. "It's every composer's worst nightmare."
But the very look of the score suggests connections. Undulating figures on the first page evoke Wagner's proto-Minimalist water music in "Das Rheingold." Clashing chords in a tempest call to mind thunder and lightning in Verdi's "Otello."
What's more, the Melville connection and the maritime element inevitably conjure up the Britten of "Billy Budd" and "Peter Grimes." More startling, the traumatized keening of the cabin boy Pip—Melville's Fool to his Ahab's Lear—might hint at the boys' choir in the opening of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion": it floats above a grandly scaled musical structure, harmonizing perfectly yet occupying an expressive space all its own.
To avoid the balance problems and other vocal hazards that come with casting a boy, Mr. Heggie has written Pip for the soprano Talise Trevigne, an admired Lucia di Lammermoor, here in her first trouser role. (Like the seven other principals, she signed on before a single note had been put to paper.)
"I think of Pip as the heart of the ship and crew, as Queequeg is its soul," Ms. Trevigne said. "His music is hauntingly beautiful, but I would say that of the entire opera. The colors really take your breath away."
The conductor Patrick Summers, who comes to "Moby-Dick" having led the original productions of Mr. Heggie's previous three full-length operas, finds the broad range of affinities thoroughly compatible with an original voice. " 'Moby-Dick' is grand opera," Mr. Summers said, "and it honors that tradition." Even the Bach parallel—if it exists—seems somehow to fit.
"I find a lot of Baroque references in Jake's music," Mr. Summers said. "Conducting some ensembles in 'Dead Man Walking' was very much like conducting Handel, because the emotional effect was entirely dependent on tempo. If you change the pace, the emotional texture changes completely."
Greenhorn has been tailored to the young tenor Stephen Costello, winner of the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, who has shot to international recognition in bel canto and lyric parts by Donizetti and Gounod. "You don't often get to do something new," Mr. Costello said. "It's thrilling. There's a lot of chaos on the ship, and Jake incorporates all that. The score is very difficult rhythmically. You have to count things in different tempi and different time signatures all the time. It's not 'La Bohème,' which you've seen a thousand times. You're not taking anything from what someone else has done. Every day is a new experience."
Growing up as a budding concert pianist, Mr. Heggie said, he loved musicals and found opera rather silly. It was "Peter Grimes," dominated by a violent, gloomy fisherman, that turned him around, and for Ahab, a Peter Grimes was what he wanted. "A great Peter Grimes," he added, requesting the Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner by name. There was no need to look further.
"I'm still trying to find my sea legs, which I guess I mean as a pun," Mr. Heppner said after hobbling through his second day of rehearsals on the artificial limb his role requires. "But it was a fairly easy decision. I'm not a big fan of European concept productions, where directors take their ideas and jam them on top of whatever they're working on. If someone has a new idea, why not have a new work to put forward that idea? I think that's the way." (Not that opportunities come along every day; Mr. Heppner was last able to practice what he preaches in 1992 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, as the antihero of William Bolcom's powerful "McTeague." )
In a jesting allusion to Luciano Pavarotti, known in his youth as the King of the High C's, Mr. Heppner likes to call himself the King of the High B flats, a nickname Mr. Heggie has kept in mind. Mr. Heppner's concern right now is Ahab's prosthesis, the legacy of his first tangle with the great whale.
"Ahab is beautifully written for my voice," Mr. Heppner said, "But today that peg leg was rubbing hard on my shinbone. I'd never thought about that, or I might have been less eager. But we're making progress."