Writing an opera is hard enough. Now imagine you are suffering from a degenerative disease that is destroying your ability to remember anything. This is the premise of “And God Created Whales,” a fascinating multimedia theater piece by singer and composer Rinde Eckert. In a revision that has been stripped down to its essentials — two singing actors, recorded sound, piano and ukulele — Eckert has brought the work to the Clarice Smith Center, seen on Wednesday night.
Nathan, played by Eckert, wakes up with no awareness of who or where he is. Finding a tape recorder around his neck, he pushes play and hears his voice explain that he is at work on an operatic adaptation of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” The voice patiently explains how he is to proceed, using a system of tape recorders to help him keep track of his ideas and progress in composition. As the performance proceeds, Nathan has to listen to more and more of the recording hung around his neck, a sign, it tells him, that his condition is worsening.
The music, simple in style, passes like a thread between the voices of the performers and instruments they play, both amplified, and the recording. In a seamless interweaving of the character’s present, vaguely remembered past, and the opera, Eckert presents vignettes drawn from the “Moby-Dick” opera — the hell-storming sermon on the story of Jonah by Father Mapple, the rousing speech of Captain Ahab, a cabin boy singing “Shenandoah” (in Eckert’s choirboy falsetto) — in a style often reminiscent of Britten’s vocal writing for the tenor Peter Pears.
Nora Cole, as a combination of imagined muse and memory of the opera singer Nathan once loved, is a powerful presence, the anchor holding Nathan in place for a time, but has a non-operatic voice given some very operatic things to do. A mostly bare set (direction by David Schweitzer, lighting by Temishia Johnson) is centered on a piano covered with sticky notes, manuscript pages and tape recorders, attached to the ceiling by rope, making it resemble the Pequod, the whale ship in “Moby-Dick.”
Downey is a freelance writer.