Preparations for the World Premiere of Moby-Dick
May 1, 2010

Moby-Dick, the opera.

The concept is appealing and even fitting on some levels. Herman Melville’s magnum opus is an epic adventure story on the high seas that confronts the relationships between good and evil, knowing and inscrutability, and God and humanity. The prose is lyric, boisterous, and wide, creating a world unto itself. The characters have a spiritual existence beyond the text. Best of all, there are grog-filled sea shanties to be sung. Moby-Dick is both about life and larger than life. Just as opera is.

Why has it taken 149 years for someone to adapt Moby-Dick for opera? For seventy of those years, the book lay fallow. No one paid much attention to Melville’s “ill-compounded mixture,” as one contemporary reviewer named it, until literary critics revived the book in the 1920s.

Since then, however, Moby-Dick has inspired at least four movie adaptations, a handful of stage productions, and many works of music, ranging from W. Francis McBeth’s five-movement work for wind orchestra Of Sailors and Whales to the concept album Leviathan by heavy metal band, Mastodon. The aura of Moby-Dick is in pressed into the social consciousness, especially the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab. Why is it, then, that not until 2010 did a composer and librettist pair up to bring us Moby-Dick the opera?

The answer is not simply that Moby-Dick is a daunting task. There are some basic problems, both artistic and practical, that make Melville’s book simply a rotten choice for an opera adaptation. The two most fundamental problems relate to the plot and the characters. While there are some action-packed adventure scenes, the majority of the story describes Ishmael’s path that led him to the Pequod and a sailor’s life aboard the fated ship.

Even more troubling is the fact that the majority of the book does not deal with the plot, at least not directly. There are poetic chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” that dance in the metaphorical mode. There are the cetology chapters that classify whales and describe in rich language their anatomies. There are also the philosophical chapters that meditate on meaning and power and the nature of existence. Action is what drives a stage production; musing renders actors and singers immobile.

The range of characters is the other major difficulty. An opera needs a mixture of voices. Moby-Dick is made of men. There are still other problems. Part of Melville’s genius was to draw life aboard a ship as a microcosm for the world, but on stage, the single setting would be monotonous. A major source of the drama comes from the narration. Ishmael tells the story sometimes focalizing into other minds. Allowing his narrator to enter other characters’ minds, Melville writes an odyssey that is not only physical but psychological.

Yet, opera, like music and love, is about immediacy. The breakthrough of the novel as a new genre was its ability to express consciousness in new modes, for example, the retrospective glance and the nostalgic understanding of the present. In an opera, there is no past or future. The singers on stage bring the audience to dwell in the now. Opera’s demands for the present would destroy some of the dramatic tension of Moby-Dick.

Before reviewing Jake Heggie’s and Gene Sheer’s work and the Dallas Opera’s performance, I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts that was working through to prepare myself for the experience. Look soon for the review.

One more concern that is one of the most practical and therefore crucial: how the hell are you going to represent a 60 foot-long, 50 ton whale on stage?

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Tone Poetry: A Category Mistake?
February 5, 2010

Last week, when Pinchas Steinberg summarized the story that Smetana’s Vlast narrates through music, he implied several times that the listener does not need to know the story but can understand it through the music. The following post is my trying to work through the idea that music can tell a story.

Symphonic poems and the pastoral: the association seems inescapable. Coming out of German Romanticism, tone poems focus on harmony, voicing, and texture to paint a musical image of mountains, trees, rivers, lakes, clouds, pastures, etc. I have three major problems with the concept of symphonic poems.

First, the phrase smells funny: a symphonic poem is neither a symphony nor a poem. A poem can–and usually does–have musical qualities, but to say that a poem can exist in music is to cheapen poetry. Poetry is made out of words, and while the sounds of those words certainly contribute to the poetic effect, they do not count as a poem themselves.

Second, the phrase reduces music to mere signifier; the pastoral images become the referent, the desideratum of significance. A symphony can conjure poetic images, but describing a bucolic scene in music relegates music to the purely representational. If that doesn’t sound like a problem, see my friend Dan Clemens’s recent blog post for a short plea for alternatives to representational theories of art.

Third, the phrase reinforces the historically dependent association between tone poems and the pastoral. A poem can also do much more than recount emotion recollected in tranquility. Not all poems are about communing with Nature. Could there be industrial tone poems? mechanical, fierce, humorous, sarcastic, spooky, silly, spritely tone poems?

The source of the problem is not the need to name the form of a musical work, but rather has to do with the conceptual limits of symphonic poems. They are like reverse ekphrasis. Instead of being about another work of art, tone poems attempt to do what another art form already does. They have another mode of art thrust upon them.

And they can’t handle it. The listener can follow an already known story as the music provides a soundtrack, but music cannot narrate a story. This conclusion (which will remain tentative) is not a complaint about music’s shortcomings, but an affirmation of music’s non-linguistic powers.

Welcome to Music in Other Words
January 24, 2010

How do we talk and write about music? How do we express a musical experience in words? What is good about good music?

Recently I have been thinking about how the aural phenomenon of music translates into the visual medium of text.  But perhaps “translation” is not the right word; it is appropriate only if music is a proper language itself. Or it might be necessary first to distinguish music from other sounds. Before I get smothered in thought experiments and semantic qualms, I’d like to get my hands dirty and attempt a little bit of the controversial and sometimes hated practice of the music critic.  You will find reviews of live performances both high and low, reviews of recorded music, and maybe some philosophical exploration about the relationship between music and words. I hope you enjoy music in other words.