SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Opera has turned to a whale of a production for its 40th anniversary season.
Beginning Jan. 20, 2018, the company will bring to life Capt. Ahab’s obsessive quest to track down the massive white whale in composer Jake Heggie's opera "Moby Dick," with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This is the first all-new production for Utah Opera since 2007’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the company has been building the set in-house since this summer. Building and staging this contemporary production reflects how Utah Opera has grown and continues to grow since its humble beginning in 1977, according to company manager Michelle Peterson.
“It’s important for us to do a piece like this in our 40th anniversary season,” Peterson said. “It’s important on an anniversary to look back, to see where you’ve come from. … It’s very exciting to look back and see (our) benchmarks, but it’s also important to look to the future, and I think doing a production like ‘Moby-Dick’ … is a really great way to propel us forward.”
While Dallas Opera premiered "Moby Dick" in 2010, Utah Opera has created a set and costumes that are designed to be more accessible to regional opera companies. In fact, as soon as the company’s weeklong run of “Moby-Dick” is completed, the adjustable set and alterable costumes will be sent to Pennsylvania where Pittsburgh Opera will stage the production in March.
And while Herman Melville’s novel, on which the opera is based, does have its practicalities — a few chapters in “Moby-Dick” delve deeply into the detailed processes of whale hunting and extracting whale oil — Utah Opera’s production will be more intimate and abstract, emphasizing the human-driven aspect of the well-known story, according to stage director Kristine McIntyre.
“(Moby-Dick is) so much a part of American culture,” she said during a recent media event for the production. “A lot of people haven’t read it but know about it.”
Peterson applauded McIntyre’s innovative approach to directing, pointing specifically to her decision to use a choreographer in the production.
“When you think about sailing on a ship … movement is such an integral part of what they do,” she said. “So we have four dancers cast in the show, and Daniel Charon, who is the artistic director of Ririe-Woodbury (Dance Company), is going to be the choreographer. … (It’s a) stylized movement to show the movement of the ship and sailors and the kind of work they had to do.”
Set designer Erhard Rom has also worked diligently to ensure the production is a healthy blend of practicality and humanity. Inspired by the novel’s final passage that expresses the eternal nature of the sea, Rom created a set that is based on a variety of curves: the curves of the waves, the boats, the Earth and life.
A rotating disc — which the choristers and cast members will move throughout the production — will allow audience members to always look at the Pequod in a different light. And while the mystery of the whale hidden deep under the sea symbolizes the abstract and unknown, the human-powered nature of the production acknowledges the reality of the physical activity and endurance that were required of sailors during the age that “Moby-Dick” is set, Rom said.
“The premise of the production is expressing realities of these events, but at the same time focusing on the internal psychology,” he said.
As part of the effort to drive home the story’s humanity, those aboard the Pequod will don costumes based on real, historical photos, according to costume designer Jessica Jahn. The designer pored over hundreds of photos to get a feel not only for what whaling entailed but also to understand a bit more about American life in the 19th century.
As a result, the costumes, which are individualized and specific to each character (even the 36 choristers) reflect what sailors endured working on a ship — from the clothes that are dyed for a sun-bleached effect down to the salt-stained shoes. In addition, each character will wear two costumes: one with hues of dark blue and gray as the story starts in Nantucket during wintertime, and a lighter costume as the tale shifts to the humid tropic where, spoiler alert, the grand whale is finally sighted — a sighting Utah Opera is keeping tight-lipped until its premiere.
“Moby-Dick” will run at Capitol Theatre Jan. 20-28, 2018.