Th’Aria she blows! Kennedy Center’s ‘Moby-Dick’ opera is a daring, action-packed epic

Dangling from a single wire, Talise Trevigne sings a solo as Pip, a cabin boy who falls overboard. (Cory Weaver)
Dangling from a single wire, Talise Trevigne sings a solo as Pip, a cabin boy who falls overboard. (Cory Weaver)

This Saturday, at the East Coast premiere of the opera “Moby-Dick,” tenor Carl Tanner will sing a soaring aria from inside a box as it’s hoisted 25 feet above the Kennedy Center stage. As the crazed, fearless Captain Ahab, he’ll be searching the horizon for his whale nemesis in the Washington National Opera’s production.

“I’m horrifically afraid of heights,” he says. “But at least I will be in a box, and not flying like Talise.”

That would be soprano Talise Trevigne, who plays a cabin boy named Pip. When Pip falls overboard, Trevigne performs a keening solo while dangling from a single wire.

“It’s not easy. You learn really quickly that you have to keep your arms and legs moving to stay facing forward,” she says. “Now I know why Cathy Rigby makes so much money.”

Like Rigby, who famously played Peter Pan, Trevigne takes on the role of a young boy. The part was originally imagined for an actual child, but composer Jake Heggie quickly realized that even a very talented kid would have trouble being heard above the rest of the cast, Trevigne says.

“Boy sopranos, their voices are unreliable, they could change at any time,” she says. “Plus, you have to withstand singing next to a giant heldentenor and 60 other men blaring away on stage.”

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, front, played Captain Ahab in the West Coast premiere of “Moby-Dick.” Here in D.C., Carl Tanner will lead the whale hunt. (Cory Weaver)
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, front, played Captain Ahab in the West Coast premiere of “Moby-Dick.” Here in D.C., Carl Tanner will lead the whale hunt. (Cory Weaver)

Trevigne has played the part of Pip since “Moby-Dick’s” 2010 premiere, at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. The soprano has since become so adept at climbing the rigging on the set’s tall ships, she’s one of the few singers who doesn’t clip into safety wires.

“It’s a very physical show, and I think that’s a good thing,” Trevigne says. “Opera has so much to compete with these days, entertainmentwise.”

If you’re aiming for accessibility, a modern opera based on Herman Melville’s 1851 doorstop of a novel might not seem like the best plan. But librettist Gene Scheer pulled an action-packed script out of the sprawling text, and Heggie’s score is more melodic than one might expect for a modern work.

That said, Ahab’s parts never quite mesh with the orchestra or chorus.

“If they’re in major, I’m in minor. If they’re in minor, I’m in major. Plus there are all these time changes, so you can never stop counting. It’s some of the most difficult music I’ve ever encountered,” Tanner says.

Ahab’s music is at odds with his crew because his goals are as well: The men just want to kill some whales, make money and get home alive, while Ahab is hell-bent on killing a particular one.

“Ahab is almost a Wagnerian role,” Tanner says. “He’s not going after this fish because it bit off his leg. He wants to rid the world of this evil thing, but in doing so he gives up his own soul.”

The theatrical challenge of bringing humanity to a madman makes Ahab “the role of a lifetime,” Tanner says. However, he could do without the heights.

“It’s bad enough I have to balance on a peg leg the entire time,” he says.

Since You Just Skimmed the Novel …

Skipping the first 200 or so landlocked pages of the novel, this version of “Moby-Dick” takes place entirely at sea. Captain Ahab leads his crew on a single-minded pursuit of the white whale. Greenhorn (who later adopts the name Ishmael), learns the ropes of shipboard life from his new friend, Queequeg, a savage from the South Seas. During a routine whale hunt, the cabin boy Pip is briefly lost at sea, causing him to go mad. When the crew finally finds Moby-Dick, the whale sinks their ship. Ahab harpoons the whale, which drags him to a watery grave. Only Greenhorn survives.

‘Moby-Dick’ by the Numbers

Even by opera standards, “Moby-Dick” is a production of epic proportions. Tracking down that dang white whale will take:

68 Orchestra members

40 Chorus members

17 Non-singing actors

27 Safety harnesses

4 Tattoo artists

2 Peg legs (one is a backup)

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Sat. through March 8, $25-$305; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom) 

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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