When you want to understand a new theatrical work in a challenging form like opera, with its many moveable parts, it’s not enough to plop down for a single performance. Ideally, you should attend a rehearsal. This is where you can best witness innovative directions new opera is taking and most especially see opera get physical.
Moby-Dick, the new opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, marks such an ambitious undertaking that it demands us to take time to unlock and appreciate its parts. Adapted from the great American classic work by Herman Melville, the process of transforming the book to the stage seems to pitch the entire creative team against an impossible beast as leviathan as the creature for which it is named. The scale, with all the elements that must come together for this work to be successful, including its physical style, boggles the mind.
So, it was with relish I grabbed the invitation to come to a “ropes rehearsal” at the Washington National Opera. I had asked specifically for a peep at the physical work that was going into the remounting of this contemporary opera. So much has been haggled about Heggie the composer – for and against – that I wanted to enter the work at a different point. I wanted especially to see how singers and movement people worked together to physicalize the world of whalers on the ocean.
I was warned when I arrived at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, “They’ll be very busy so we can’t ask anyone questions. They are very focused today.” All were preparing for the East Coast premiere of the work, originally commissioned by the Dallas Opera Company, and co-owned by Dallas with four other companies that include State Opera of Southern Australia, Calgary Opera, San Diego Opera and San Francisco Opera.
As I crept into the Opera House and sat quietly, I immediately fell under the spell of the sanctuary that is the spirit of rehearsal. I have always loved watching (and sharing) rehearsals, being in on the discoveries. I was reminded of my youth watching Balinese girls gather inside a temple to rehearse dance steps. I would see others, including duck herders and street vendors, wander by and stop to watch bits of rehearsal before an evening performance. These ordinary folk were astonishingly apt students of the high, metaphysical art form of Balinese dance theatre and grew their critical appreciation because they were in on a work in process and watched over time as the young dancers developed.
On this day, the focus of Moby-Dick’s creative team, several of who have traveled with the production as it has been remounted, was split between a big tech table, positioned in the audience a third of the way up from the stage where Set Designer Robert Brill and Projection Designer Elaine McCarthy were tap-tapping away at their computers, and the stage. There, choreographer Keturah Stickann was standing with Lisa Anderson, stage manager, and climbing coordinator, Mark Caudle. Like nannies at a playground, they were watching some dozen or so “supers” (supernumerary or extra performers) who were already practicing climbing up and sliding down a massive whitish wall, looking much like a cut out from a half pipe at the Socchi Olympics.
The streamlined curved wall was made up of planks laid horizontally from stage floor to the top of the proscenium and stretched just beyond the extreme edges of the stage to represent the inside of a great whaling vessel. The bright rehearsal lights revealed handholds like drawer pulls up and down its surface that would, with lights and projections, be transformed into the three harpoon boats as seen looking down into them from above. There were also three narrow metal towers that represented three sailing masts.
I watched for almost a half hour as the performers practiced running up the wall and then grabbing onto the holds, enacting acrobatic moves where some flung their legs over their heads and others were pinioned to the vertical slopes with only one foot tucked under a rung. Every performer in turn would launch themselves out into space to slide down the wall.
The people choreographed to climb the masts carried clips and harnesses like rock climbers. Caudle would be one of these, but on this day he was watching and guiding others with a careful eye. Soon the performers, identified as those in the three harpoon boats, were all in their places while others had climbed the masts to be in positions as “look outs.” In no other opera before this had I ever seen the entire proscenium filled with human activity, from stage floor to top of the ceiling.
I recognized that there were probably a few professional aerialists or rock climbers in this show, and perhaps to them the feats were not as spectacular as some they might have performed elsewhere. The irony, of course, is that the context of the opera’s drama makes the choreography more thrilling than any circus stunt. I imagined in performance how the bodies would be flung out onto a projected sea and disappear as if engulfed by waves. My guess is that it will be emotionally horrifying and breathtaking simultaneously.
This afternoon, I was most impressed by how the cast that included forty members of the Washington National Opera Chorus and seventeen additional Supernumeraries blended into a seamless whole over the course of the rehearsal. These talented people were all local, fourteen of them new to the company and perhaps new to opera. That’s fifty-seven contracts.
The fact remains that all too often, even in the most impressive opera houses Choruses are used pretty unimaginatively, blocked to stand or move in vertical clumps. But here, in Moby-Dick, almost everyone takes on physical challenges, and everyone adds vitally to the stage reality.
I was contemplating all this when I received a jolt by the stage manager bringing us back to here-and-now reality and calling for a fifteen-minute break over her head set. “When we come back, rope pulling.” While the performers emptied the stage, the tech crews worked hard to get the ropes and their pulleys to work at just the right height and tension to please set designer Brill.
6 performances between
February 22 – March 8, 2014
Presented by Washington National Opera
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Tickets: $25 – $305
Details and Ticketss
When everyone returned, they took their places for the top of the show. There was Queequeg (Eric Greene) with his pipe sitting downstage. There were the other men sprawled out asleep across the stage that in performance would be shrouded in darkness.
At the sound of the ship’s bell built into the score, it was as if an anthill had been stomped on. People poured out from everywhere. Men roused themselves, milled here and there, pulled on boots, climbed up towers, or grabbed onto ropes. The sharp eyes of Stickann and Caudle were everywhere, and the two stopped the action and made adjustments so there would be no traffic jams. “Pull hold, hand, hand,” came the voice of the choreographer, creating the rhythm of the rope pulling so that everyone would be in time. With the movement came the great booming sound of the male chorus, with just one soprano voice breaking through, that of Talise Trevigne, as the ship’s boy Pip.
Ah, this was the glorious coming together of sound and staging where one could feel both the first auditory impulse for Heggie’s vision and the contribution of every single hardworking artist in that space. It takes a vision of a great whale and a little Ahab madness to make an American opera of this magnitude.