And the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago…


I’m actually writing this looking at a different ocean… not the fair Pacific, where the crew of the Pequod met their watery end, and where the cast and crew of Opera San Jose have just a few more rehearsals before they open. No, I’m now staring at the Atlantic, the ocean on which the Pequod began her journey, and Melville too, as he sailed on the Acushnet at the ripe old age of 18, a young man gone a-whaling.

It’s strange to leave a show before it has opened. I have the vague sense that I don’t quite know how the story ends. But of course, I do. Moby will open and the cast will sing their story, and the Pequod will sink, and then rise again, and I’ll start the whole process over again in a few weeks in Chicago.

Ishmael knows this, too. The sea rises and falls, life continues, art happens. A young man comes of age and lives to tell the tale. Looking at the beautiful view off the coast of Santa Cruz, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the ocean, the bigness of the book, the complexity of the opera… and ready to start anew.

Ahab vs Khan: Moby Dick in outer space

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As anyone who has ever worked with me knows, I’m a Trekkie. Have been since I encountered the original TV series in Saturday afternoon reruns as a kid. Memorized the dialogue, went to a convention or two, wrote some fan fiction, built a replica of the Enterprise… the whole shebang. So it was inevitable that someone (in this case, our Starbuck Justin Ryan, followed by most of the rest of the cast) would bring up the connection between Melville and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

Which is, by the way, the best Star Trek movie. Don’t argue. Just read.

Watch it and look carefully and you will see a copy of Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf. The other books are instructive as well – especially the TWO copies of Paradise Lost, which was one of Melville’s favorite books. I’ve already written about the through-line from Milton’s Lucifer to Claggart in Billy Budd, but there’s a lot of that Dark Angel in Ahab, too.

And of course, Khan quotes Moby Dick several times in the movie, including as he arms the Genesis device in a last, desperate attempt to destroy Kirk, his mortal enemy.  screen shot 2019-01-13 at 10.56.11 pm“To the last, I will grapple with thee. From hell’s heart, I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”

Sound familiar?

So I guess the interesting question is why – why of all the super-villains in history and literature did the writers of the film pick Ahab on whom to model Khan and his unceasing quest for revenge? Melville certainly didn’t set out to create the Ur-villain of American literature, and I wonder if he would be surprised at how much Ahab and his whale have crept into pop culture. Because if people know nothing else about this book, they know it’s about a crazy guy chasing a whale he can never catch. Ahab has become a symbol for obsession, for the quest you can never achieve – and the whale himself becomes almost apocryphal, as though he doesn’t exist.

If Ahab did actually catch Moby, I think it would be a let-down, wouldn’t it?

Because he’s more useful to us as a symbol of intellect and passion gone wrong. He speaks to something very dark in the human psyche and we all recognize it, even if we don’t give into it. Not super-villain or super evil, but all too real.

“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” says Milton. Khan agrees, and so I think would Ahab. Defiance, anger, obsession and intellect, all bound together.

Melville in space – I think he’d be delighted.





Stubb and his La-Z-boy: Humor in Moby Dick

I’ve never thought of Moby Dick as a funny story. A monomaniac captain leads his entire crew to near-total destruction, with only one survivor…. That doesn’t seem like a barrel of laughs. But the fact is, there’s a lot of humor in the book – and in the opera –  and much of it comes from the character of Stubb. And this week, watching Eugene Brancoveanu’s easy, delightful performance, and remembering the great work of Craig Irvin and Malcolm MacKenzie before him, I’m constantly reminded of how glad I am this character exists and how smart Melville was to make him second mate of the Pequod.

“Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair.”

Ok, now that’s a great description. I can literally see Eugene lounging in the open jaws of a whale, feet up casually on a few of the teeth, smoking his pipe and wondering what all the fuss was about. La-Z-boy, nautical edition. And just having a character like this lightens our mood. It can’t all be doom and gloom if Stubb is around. Who knows what would actually make Stubb upset. But with Flask, the other essential part of the double-act, played so wonderfully last night in rehearsal by Mason Gates, you realize that there’s a whole world of humor outside of Starbuck’s Quaker seriousness and Greenhorn’s wide-eyed confusion.

Now I’ve written before that I found funny bits in Moby – the stuff about whales having mittens, comparing a bad painting of a whale to a squash, etc. But that’s all external humor – narrator-imposed, Melville/Ishmael looking back with tongue in cheek and a bit of distance. And I found even more this last time I reread the book (that’s 8 times, folks. Surely the Melville society will be sending me a medal any minute.) What I’m really feeling in rehearsal this week is the humor inherent in the characters: Stubb’s cheeky defiance, Flask’s boy-humor, Queequeg’s benevolent and gentle wit. Even Ahab makes a sick joke towards the end of Act I – “I’m all aleak myself” he says, when Starbuck complains of leaking oil casks – betraying a self-deprecating humor I didn’t think he had.

Finding the lightness, the joy and the funny bits are so much a part of shaping a good story. This time through, I’m more aware than ever how much material Melville gives us to work with – and how naturally we grab hold of it.

Like little life-preservers, we hang on to those funny bits as though our lives depended on it.

Easy chairs for all!

Yearning, obsession, wreckage and deliverance


436 pages distilled down to just 4 words – and I think Samuel Otter hit the nail on the head with that description. It’s everything you need to know about the story – and everything I need to tell the cast as we set sail again, back into Melville’s world.

We’re just starting rehearsals here at Opera San Jose. It’s the 3rd outing of the production and the cast is almost entirely new to the show. They’re brimming with excitement, a little overwhelmed by the scope of it all but soaking in all the details like eager sponges and desperate to get it right. Right now, they are all Greenhorn. They’re Ishmael in those first 10 chapters: young, confident, brash, and determined to make something of themselves in the world. They love having the harpoons and lances in their hands. They like feeling the weight of the weapons, vaulting up onto the disc. They can almost see themselves out there on the wide, beautiful seas, chasing whales and adventure. For them, the whale is not yet a demon. Ahab still seems fatherly, benevolent. They have not yet looked into the fire.

I love this part of the process, where everything is possibility and you almost think the Pequod could make it to the end of her voyage. Tonight is the first chorus rehearsal, so we’ll add 30 more Ishmaels to the mix – with bright eyes, eager faces and a song in their hearts. Richard Cox as Ahab will slowly bend them to his vision, and they’ll feel the haka in their bones and in their souls. They’ll shout “Death to Moby Dick” and believe it’s possible – not yet realizing that the wreckage part of that quote applies to them.

Death and destruction will come soon enough. But for right now, it’s nice to enjoy the sunlight. To feel the yearning – and the wide open seas.


Father and sons / Heroes and monsters

Yesterday was the sitzprobe of Moby Dick here in Pittsburgh (the first rehearsal with singers and orchestra together) and as we sat there and listened, Bill Powers asked me a great question – why does Ahab insist that Starbuck stay behind? Why the great chapter called The Symphony (and duet in the opera with the same note) in which the two men, so at odds with each other, finally connect, find common ground, shared history?

It happens in Chapter 132 of the book, so in my edition it means they’ve been doubting each other and arguing with each other and contemplating each other’s murders for 386 pages. In the opera, it’s the 2nd to last scene. So what’s the point, so late in the game? Is it just a structural device, to redeem Ahab a little before sending him to his death? Or is there something else at work?

For Melville, it often seems to come down to fathers and son. His own strained relationship with his sons, losing them both in terrible ways (one to suicide, the other died alone of a fever 3,000 miles away from home) had a profound impact on his work. And now, so deep into my journey with Billy Budd and Moby Dick, I see it everywhere. Ahab and Starbuck connect over the idea of the sons they have left behind – and though Ahad has clearly decided to die, he will not leave Starbuck’s son fatherless as well. he sees his own family reflected in Starbuck’s eye. Starbuck calls him “grand old soul” and in that moment, Ahab becomes the mentor, the father figure, the great man that Starbuck was searching for – perhaps even needed, given that he’d lost his own father and older brother to whaling years before.

And I see this father / son relationship reflected throughout the novel and the opera. Pip, the poor cabin boy who goes mad, is a son substitute for both Ahab and Starbuck. In the opera, left behind on the Pequod, Pip goes to his death clinging to Starbuck as Starbuck sings of the son he will never see again. Ahab can only watch, losing both of his surrogate boys in one terrible moment.

For the crew, Ahab becomes a mystical if deranged hero with amazing navigational skills, eerily connected to the sea and Moby Dick. For Starbuck, Ahab is both hero and monster, but he is also a fellow father of a son, and a father-figure as well. It makes the drama more intimate, more familial, but also more archetypal – the eternal struggle of fathers and sons, connecting and breaking with each other in endless cycle, seeking to reconnect when it is almost too late, when the book and the opera are ending, when the White Whale is just over the horizon. A struggle as old as time, reflected in the eyes of man you thought you hated, but so dearly want to love.




Back on the Pequod

Day 1 of rehearsal in Pittsburgh, with a largely new cast, and I find myself quoting favorite lines from the book like one of those crazy Melville nerds I used to laugh at before this whole journey began. And while it was good to have 5 weeks away from the boat, I will confess to missing the camaraderie of the rehearsal hall and the particular group of guys that shows up to do an opera like this. We make family very quickly, and learn to rely on one another, and even though everyone is coming straight from other projects, and is terrified of the short amount of time we have to put this together, already the excitement is starting to build:

and all were directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one Lord and Keel did point to

I really can’t deny that there’s something quite special about these two pieces – Billy Budd and Moby Dick – so different, and yet the atmosphere in the room, the excitement of starting, is so much the same. These singers, they are all so game.

So I found myself walking around the rehearsal hall, talking to the harpooneers about the correct way to hold and throw a harpoon (thank you, docents at the New Bedford Whaling Museum) – and showing them the famous statue from the square there, with its caption “a dead whale, or a stove boat” – a sentiment they sing in Act I Scene 2…


and they looked intently, and then matched their hands to the image in the photograph and nodded seriously, and one of them simply said, “Cool.”

These are my people. And I am home again.




Is Ahab Ahab?

It’s always interesting to watch someone you really respect and admire develop a difficult and unlikable character – because inevitably, if they are good at their job, they make you see things you just didn’t before. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Roger Honeywell on several shows – all of them with some sort of nautical theme – and of course, he’s been on this same Melville journey with me this year.  It’s no surprise that he’s a very compelling Ahab, fully embracing the darker aspects of a man “gnawed within and scorched without.” He’s got the monomaniac thing down, resisting help in the rehearsal hall and resisting the urge to be sympathetic to his fellow travelers on board. Revenge is his bread and butter.

But what’s surprising – and scary – is how much he’s taking the rest of us along for the ride. He’s not only compelling, but convincing – he’s actually got me, and the crew, believing that chasing Moby Dick over thousands of miles – while ignoring the cost to the voyage, the ship, and maybe our lives –  is the most logical, the greatest, the noblest thing one could do. As Ahab, he makes sense. As all truly great, crazy people do.

 “A wild mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me;                                                    Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine”

Yes, Ishmael I hear you. Ahab has reached inside and talked to that other part of your soul, the part we all want to pretend isn’t there, the part that makes us both despise and admire him. The grand, ungodly, God-like man is the helm and we are all just along for the ride – and he’s convinced us it’s exactly where we want to be.