Set designer Robert Brill highlights preparations for ‘Moby-Dick’ opera

Written by Anne Midgette
Anne Midgette

How do you stage an opera that takes place entirely on board a ship, with a huge cast and chorus, without making the audience feel as claustrophobic as a crew stuck for months on an overlong journey? The answer, in “Moby-Dick,” is: with computer projections, supernumeraries, graphics and a set so huge it almost didn’t fit into many of the theaters that co-produced it. “There were times we felt this was almost an impossible task,” says Robert Brill, the set designer, who is currently preparing to watch the set make its way into the Kennedy Center Opera House as the Washington National Opera prepares for the Feb. 22 opening. “It’s actually bigger than what you will see in D.C.,” Brill says. Dallas, where the opera had its world premiere in 2010, “was the only city where we could represent it in its full width.”

— Anne Midgette

Virtual image of ship from 'Moby-Dick. Virtual image of ship from "Moby-Dick. (Courtesy of Robert Brill)

Brill: [Director Leonard Foglia and I] both appreciated the idea of almost a graphic sensibility to design. . . . How do you depict a space that feels like it’s endless, yet you have this immense crew on stage — not only principals but chorus, supers, 50 to 60 bodies on stage? How do you integrate the corps into physical activity? All these ideas were spinning in our heads, and when we started to look at graphic depictions of ships, rigging of ship, [we saw] those lines could also be functional, they would allow activity for the company on stage: climbing those lines, pulling on those lines. . . . That graphic sensibility started to become active. It became integral to how we represent the ship visually, and how the company was interactive with the ship.

The San Francisco Opera's production of 'Moby-Dick.' The San Francisco Opera's production of "Moby-Dick." (Cory Weaver)

Brill: That moment where they’re rendering the blubber, Lenny had always wanted that to be something that was a little more visceral, where you actually see a whale carcass for the first time, see them handling these portions of blubber to be rendered into the oil; the way that we reveal it is kind of a big moment and leads to the end of the first act. To be quite honest, I have to credit that to Lenny. He said, “What if the set did this?” This was already a massive undertaking; I thought, this is insane. I’m on board, I can figure out how to do it, but really? This kind of totally unexpected moment that defies the expectation that everything’s going to happen on this surface. [Then it opens up] and you’re in the belly of the beast, this hell mouth, for the next 20 minutes.

Talise Trevigne as Pip in the San Francisco Opera's production of 'Moby-Dick.' Talise Trevigne as Pip in the San Francisco Opera's production of "Moby-Dick." (Cory Weaver)

Brill: Obviously the whale-boat moment is the one that’s been captured the most, but still, of all the work I’ve ever done, it’s one of the most beautiful and striking images. But then there are moments that are so simple: Pip [the cabin boy] floating on stage for five minutes, surrounded by water. And of course those moments are back-to-back.

Jake Heggie (composer): Terrence [McNally, who was originally supposed to be the librettist on the project] actually never wrote anything down. We were only in the development stage [when he had to withdraw]. He gave some great ideas that Gene [Scheer, the librettist] had to take over. [One was that] Pip is a pants role for a soprano. It gave that extra extension [in an opera with an otherwise all-male cast], and also, children are very unreliable. And I didn’t want to have to deal with miking [to enable a child’s voice to be heard].

Set designer Robert Brill's model for 'Moby-Dick.' Set designer Robert Brill's model for "Moby-Dick." (Courtesy of Robert Brill)

Brill: The idea was to not see the ends of the set. To have it feel expansive rather than being contained. That was always the objective. So a really broad, white, continuous, almost seamless space is what we were going for. . . . It’s kind of deceptive, because when you watch it, you feel like there’s not a lot to this . . . but at the end of the evening, if you were to look up in the air, there are so many pieces — things people climb on, fly on, various silhouettes of rigging, all these various parts — that when you stack them up, [they] occupy all the overhead space.

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