By Iride Aparicio

Photos courtesy: Pat Kirk

SAN JOSÉ, CA-  As part of the 35th Season of  OPERA SAN JOSÉ, the new opera MOBY-DICK, written by Grammy-nominated composer JAKE HEGGIE and librettist GENE SCHEER,  opened at the California Theatre in San José as a  coproduction of UTAH OPERA, PITTSBURGH OPERA, CHICAGO OPERA THEATER and GRAN THEATRE del LICEU, in BARCELONA, SPAIN.
Based on the novel MOBY-DICK, also known as THE WHALE, written by HERMAN MELVILLE and published in London in 1851, MOBY-DICK, as an opera, is unique. Based on the Novel MOBY-DICK , also known as THE WHALE, written by HERMAN MELVILLE and published in London in l85l, MOBY-DICK , as an opera is unique.

MELVILLE’s thick novel, Moby-Dick or The Whale, that was recognized as “The Great American Novel” one hundred years after MELVILLE’s death, is considered, by many, a philosophical work in which the author (MELVILLE) gave his characters biblical names for symbolism, and named his own albino (white) whale  Moby-Dick imitating the name of the famous Mocha Dick whale that the Chilean whalers had killed after it sank the ship ESSEX in 1820.

So, unlike most opera librettos which are centered on a great love, when writing the libretto for MOBIE-DICK, the opera, librettist (SCHEER) had to focus his libretto (The book which contains the text sung by the opera’s singers) in the hatred of a man for a whale.

Tenor RICHARD COX as Captain Ahab

As Librettist, SCHEER, did an excellent job. He managed to digest Moby-Dick, the novel, into the libretto book and give character to his characters in his lyrics, without trying to analyze its philosophy.

In his libretto, Mr. SCHEER made MOBY-DICK , the opera, coherent, and interesting, preserving the principal incidents in the novel and all its principal characters.


As in the novel, all the character in the opera are men. Whalers from all nationalities and races, experienced as sailors, as whale hunters or as harponists.  In the opera, however, perhaps  to put “colour” (difference in sound in the all male choruses, which are many) a young cabin boy, by the name of Pip, is represented by soprano JASMINE HABERSHAM (dressed as a boy.)

The principal characters in the Opera are: Greenhorn, a sailor,  played by Tenor NOAH STEWART.Green Horn is not his real name, but the other sailors gave him the name because he has never been on a whailing ship.

In the novel, this character is the narrator of the story and the one who introduces the novel with the line: “Call me Ishmael” and then, introduces himself. Ishmael, in the bible, is the bastard son of Abraham and Sarah’s maid. Sarah was was barren so she gave her husband the opportunity to have a son. Later, however, she got pregnant  with Isaac, and send Ishmael and his mother to wander alone in the desert. In the novel, Ishmael is also the one who reveals to the readers the reason Ahab is determined to kill Moby-Dick the whale. The reason was revealed to him  by the Pequod’s ship’owners, Peleg and Bildad.

The principal role in the opera is the role of Ahab, the Captain of the Pequod, the whale-hunting ship, that was sang by Tenor RICHARD COX. Being the principal,  Ahab has more "solo" arias (Arias he sings alone) that the other singers, and his role demands more acting,  As Ahab, COX has to portray a man, who is incapable to love or care for anybody. In a beautiful aria, he tells Starbuck (JUSTIN RYAN) about his wife and son which he left behind.

Ahab, however, can hate, and he hates an albino (white) whale that is named Moby-Dick  by the whale hunting sailors. Moby-Dick is enormous and very strong. He had  killed many sailors and destroyed many ships. In a previous voyage, the whale had an encounter with Ahab, near Japan and ate his left foot and leg up to its knee, causing him tremendous psychological damage because it left him limping, walking on a peg carved of ivory. (Playing the role, COX  also must walk for over two hours on the stage, with his knee resting on a fake ivory leg). When Ahab got well he began searching for the whale, and his sole purpose in this trip is to kill Moby-Dick.

Ahab, in the Bible, was a wicked King who ruled Israel for 22 years. In the sight of God, he was evil, because he encouraged the Jewish people to  worship Baal. (A pagan god). Ahab in the Bible, was killed in a battle with the Syrians when he followed the advice of false prophets who told him he was going to win the war, and disregarded  the prophesies of  Micaiah, the only true prophet from God.

Other characters in the opera are: Starbuck (JUSTIN RYAN) the ship’s First Mate and the only one who tells Ahab his reluctance in the purpose of the voyage. Queequeg (Bass Baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM) who is a tattooed Polynesian cannibal and a great harponist. Second Mate  Stubb (Baritone EUGENE BRANCOVEANU), Dagoo (Baritone BABATUNDE AKINBOBOYE, Flask (Tenor MASON GATES). Tashtego (Tenor KEVIN GINO) and (Tenor NICOLAS GERST). Nantucket Sailor (Tenor CHESTER PIDDUCK), Gardiner (TREVOR NEAL) and Spanish Sailor (Baritone KIRIL HAVEZOV)

L-R  Jasmine Habersham, Noah Steward, Mason Gates, Eugene Brancoveanu, Ashraf Sewailam, Dane Suarez, Nicholas Gerst and  center front Richard Cox as Ahab

The Music
JAKE HEGGIE’S music for MOBY-DICK  has a style of it own. It is melodious, and modern in sound but without the dissonances we hear in the twenty-century styles. It is  powerful in the men’s chorus and its orchestration convey the action of the opera marvelously. The melodies sway with the ocean’s webs. The violins convey the howling of the wind, the cymbals and drumbs indicate the flashes and thunder in the storms. We could add that the wonderful voices of each one of the singers and their acting of their roles under the direction of Stage Director KRISTINE McINTYRE, conveyed the drama well. It also helped that under Conductor JOSEPH MARCHESO the orchestra was well tuned and its volume allowed us to hear  the voices of the singers clearly. The opera is sung in English.

The Set
A set that manages to convert a theatre’s stage into a whailing boat’s deck where the sailors sing as they prepare a whale; into ship's cabins where the sailors sleep; into a room where the sailors dance and sing as they float in the ocean, ought to be “marvelous.” And marvelous and visual, is the revolving set for MOBY-DICK created by Set Designer EAHARD ROM. With the collaboration of  Lighting Designer PAMILA  Z.  GRAY, and light, the set even converts the stage of the  California Theatre  into a blue Pacific Ocean of clashing weaves where the whalers boats and the whales float. To see this set in an opera, is quite an experience for Opera’s goers.


As many former students who were instructed to read Moby-Dick the novel,  also known as The Whale, in high school or in college know, understanding the philosophical meaning of the book may require years of readings. So, MOBY-DICK, the opera, does not intend to convey its entire philosophy, which would be impossible, but visually and with music brings its story to life in a fabulous way to its audience.

NOTE: in this review when talking about the opera the name MOBY-DICK is written in capitals.

MOBY-DICK will be performed at the CALIFORNIA THEATRE until February 24. For tickets you can go online to www.operasj.org/ or call (408) 437-4450.