Feb. 15 2012 11:50 AM

The new opera takes the audience on a voyage and asks them to leave expectations behind

John David Peters, head carpenter at San Diego Opera, says the staging is as epic as the Moby-Dick adventure.
Photo by Marcus Ligons

Call me impressed.

When the San Diego Opera opens Moby-Dick on Saturday, Feb. 18, it will do so with more than 50 tons of wood, steel and scenery on the stage.

“We could probably build a ship bigger than the Pequod,” quipped John David Peters, who's been the head carpenter at the San Diego Opera since 1977.

The Pequod, of course, is the whaling vessel captained by Ahab in his single-minded pursuit of the white whale made famous in Herman Melville's masterpiece. Originally published in 1851, Melville's epic tale of a ragtag group of sailors and seafarers led by a captain obsessed with finding the whale that took his leg is considered by many to be the first Great American Novel.

But the five trailers of gear that require a crew of 60 to assemble represent the central problem of staging an epic sea story: How do you express the claustrophobia of life aboard a whaling ship and the limitless expanse of the ocean? How do you convey howling winds and towering swells? And how do you do it with more than 100,000 pounds of gear on the stage?

Peters admitted it wasn't easy: “I've spent more time preparing for this show than any show that we haven't built from scratch.” But isn't this what we've come to expect from opera? Cumbersome sets that evoke a bygone age and create a solid platform for the singers?

Not this show.

“This show is heavily dependent upon very contemporary lighting, moving instruments, automated instruments,” Peters said. “There's a tremendous amount of video that enhances the scenery. So much moves. The video moves, the lighting moves, all of the scenery moves. You're on a whaleboat, but it's a very contemporary representation of the boat by a young American designer who has a San Diego history.”

That would be Robert Brill, who earned his undergraduate degree at UCSD and worked in local theater for 10 years before moving on to New York and San Francisco, which he now calls home.

Photo by Karen Almond

Brill embraced the challenge of telling a story that takes place largely at sea without using so much as a drop of water.

“The objective was to create a space where you would have the vastness of the sea but that was also theatrical and could make use of projection and video in an interesting way,” he said.

Brill studied all the things that come into play when navigating a ship in the open seas, from constellations to nautical charts to schematics of the vessels. A connection between the abstract lines on the charts and diagrams and the lines used in the rigging on a ship began to emerge. (On a ship, “rope” is always referred to as “line.”)

“The lines of the ship ended up being the connective tissue that we kept going back to,” Brill said. “The lines give the performers something tangible to interact with. So we went from the idea of lines to the chaos of rigging.”

The multimedia presentation of the ship allows the audience to inhabit the vessel in a way that is immersive and three-dimensional.

“When we're on the deck of the ship,” Peters said, “and we have the climbing trusses and the climbing ladders and all the rigging in, and you see people scampering up to 25 or 30 feet off the floor, you'll realize this is a little bit different.”

In other words, instead of asking the audience to imagine the sea, the whaleboat and all the nautical nomenclature that goes with it, Moby-Dick puts you onboard with Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg and Ishmael. To put it another way, it's not just a story of a voyage; it is a voyage. You might even consider bringing some Dramamine.

Still, there's the matter of all that lumber on the stage.

“We felt like the set needed one very massive stroke,” Brill said.

Massive is an understatement. Dominating the set is a huge, curving wall that towers over the stage. At first glance, it looks like something from the X Games. You expect Tony Hawk to come tearing down the pipe on his skateboard. On closer inspection, the curve suggests the hull of a ship and is notched so that it can be easily scaled. This wall, which can be lit in all kinds of interesting ways, serves as a canvas for scene setting, a screen for the projections and a prop for the actors. The wall can be used to create the impression of a sailor climbing a mast or reefing a sail in one scene and convey the face of a wave that is about to break in the next.

Perhaps there's something to the skateboard analogy; when the skateboarder's in mid-air, defying gravity and logic, does anyone notice the ramp?

But Moby-Dick isn't a skateboard trick. It's a 600-page masterpiece. It's dense. It's encyclopedic. And, let's be honest, most of us haven't read it. Forget the vastness of the sea; it's the vastness of the book that I'm worried about.

“It's a universal story,” Brill said. “It's about obsession, its about revenge, its about the challenge of being in an unknown environment and rising to that occasion. Thematically, we can all find some connection to it. I don't think you have to be familiar with the novel at all.”

Moby-Dick may be a classic tale, but it's an American one. It's not culled from another culture's past, but our own. By opera standards, Moby-Dick is thoroughly modern and deserving of contemporary consideration. Peters encourages opera-goers to leave their expectations behind.

“I think the audience is going to see cutting-edge opera,” he said. “They're going to see the 21st-century version of an art form we've all pigeon-holed into the 17th and 18th century. I think they're going to be very surprised.”

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


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