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A Whale of an Opera Comes Home

Moby-Dick, by San Francisco composer Jake Heggie, premieres here after two years on the road.

Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab on the Pequod.

Thank god for high school English teachers. The hours you spent wrestling with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick will finally pay off this Wednesday, when San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s opera has its local premiere. (Those who didn’t get the good teacher can use Wikipedia to brush up.)

Moby-Dick first opened two years ago in Dallas to rave reviews, including one by Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman, who called it “a vibrant, compelling piece of musical theater… easily Heggie’s finest creation since Dead Man Walking first put him on the map a decade ago.” (Heggie’s other operas include Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, and To Hell and Back).

But don’t expect any lifelike whales comparable to the equine scene-stealer in War Horse. Apart from the fact that the Broadway musical cornered the market this season on “how-the-hell-did-they-do-that?” production design, Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer left the detailed world of 19th-century whaling pretty much on the cutting-room floor. Instead, they focused the drama on the relationship between the tyrannical, half-mad Captain Ahab and his thoughtful first mate, Starbuck, who bitterly objects to Ahab’s quest to kill the whale (aka Moby Dick, which bit off Ahab’s leg in a previous voyage).

How has the story resonated with a modern audience? (The opera has been performed in San Diego, Australia, and Calgary.) “An inspiring, brilliant leader goes mad—and leads all of his followers to destruction? That’s a story that’s happened as long as there have been people on the planet,” Heggie says. (Jim Jones will certainly spring to people's minds around here.) And how does Heggie feel about his hometown opening? “I’ve been pinching myself every day. I just cannot believe what an extraordinary experience it is to have Moby-Dick here 12 years after the premiere of Dead Man Walking. As far as I’m concerned, the four previous productions were out-of-town tryouts for the production here in San Francisco.”

What about the true local tribute: Opera-goers who dress in costume, like horns and helmets for The Ring and plaid taffeta skirts for Macbeth. (Fashion police did not approve.) “People in costume?” Heggie exclaims. “I hadn’t even thought of that. Damn, I love this town!”