Moby Dick opera to debut next week to celebrate Melville birth

(Published April 18, 2019)

By Elisa Shoenberger, staff writer

Next week the Chicago Opera Theater, 70 E Lake St., will perform an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer at the Harris Theater.

The performances will be April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and April 28 at 3 p.m. The performances wrap up several months of celebrations in honor of Melville’s birth, 200 years ago.

The “Moby Dick” opera focuses on Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge,  Starbuck’s struggle against the quest, and the transformation of Greenhorn (Ishmael) from a lost soul to future storyteller.

Scheer said when he was asked to write the libretto, he found “there was a lot of operatic potential and a lot of operatic challenges. But there were these huge themes, great characters and a beautiful text that can be exploited in a libretto.”

Scheer said his job was to, “distill … it down to big broad strokes that tell the story and invite music in, so that music conveys emotional content and subtlety of the storytelling.”

Scheer said he’s happy his opera is part of the overall celebration of the author.

“It’s fantastic to celebrate a great artist who have an enduring legacy. These kinds of anniversaries remind people to pick up of the book and see what all the fuss is about,” Scheer said.

Besides the opera, the Newberry Library opened an exhibition “Melville: Finding America at Sea” that in January showcased the Newberry’s collection of Melville works and artistic responses.

The exhibition also showcased art inspired by Melville. Hansen explains that there has been a “long lineage of people reimagining or thinking about what Melville’s work looks like.” One of the centerpieces was the 1930s Rockwell Kent illustrated Moby Dick that is “typically thought of as one of the most beautiful books of the 20th century.”

With the exhibition, the Newberry had a Moby-Dick Read-a-Thon where about 150 speakers who read aloud the full text in 25.5 hours. There was a symposium “Making Melville Legible” as well as several performances.

The next exhibition is “The Legacy of Chicago Dance” that explores the history of dance in Chicago. It will open April 27 and closes July 6.

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