SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a good chance “Moby-Dick” was on your high school reading list.
There’s probably an even better chance that you managed to find a way around reading the more-than-700-page epic novel about Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to hunt down the massive white whale.
Then there are people like Kristine McIntyre, who recently finished reading Herman Melville’s novel for the seventh time. She knows the story — and its whale — inside out, and beginning Jan. 20, the stage director will bring the novel to life in Utah Opera’s all-new production of “Moby-Dick” at Capitol Theatre.
“It’s been a very interesting journey to kind of go from being one of the people that thought, ‘Why is this on the English AP list?’ to having read the book seven times,” McIntyre said. “This last time through I (even) found two lines that made me laugh out loud — I never thought that would happen.”
But speaking with members of the cast recently, it’s clear that Utah Opera’s upcoming production will be far from comical — in fact, it’ll be quite dark.
“One of the stories of this production is the transformation of the crew," McIntyre said. "How they go from being fairly happy-go-lucky sailors engaged in what they think is going to be a fairly normal whaling voyage to being on basically the voyage of the damned.”
Much of this transformation has to do with the single-minded Capt. Ahab, as he forbids all sailors aboard the Pequod from hunting or capturing any whale until Moby-Dick, the detested whale that severed his leg, is sighted and captured. The journey becomes so fanatical that the other members of the crew begin to fear they will never return home to their families.
For tenor Roger Honeywell, portraying Capt. Ahab comes with a unique set of obstacles — including wearing a 10-pound peg leg while his actual left leg is pulled all the way up to his backside.
“I walk with a cane and I just struggle,” Honeywell said. “This is a work of sheer pain. … You can’t help but be informed by this experience. And as much as I hate it, it also informs the character, which puts you in a very dark mood all the time. I’m usually a very happy person — not right now.”
“It’s interesting watching the frustration about what Roger can do and can’t do,” McIntyre added. “It’s the same as Ahab’s frustration, having been somebody who was very able-bodied on the ship. He sailed for 40 years before Moby-Dick took off his leg. And now he cannot do the things that he used to do … and those two things are working in unison, and it’s interesting to sort of think about."
As Honeywell adjusts to the physical and emotional limitations of Ahab, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, in his Utah Opera debut, is continually learning to adopt the more easy-going nature of crew member Queequeg, a harpooner from the Pacific Islands.
It’s a character to which Ngqungwana, who is from South Africa, can at least relate a little, as both he and Queequeg share native traditions that involve finding purpose in life and proving manhood through various rites of passage. But the singer is always learning something new from portraying Queequeg.
“Queequeg’s uninhibited about many things,” he said. “Like I’m thinking about rent, I’m thinking about health care, ‘Have I paid that bill?’ Queequeg does not think about that. He doesn’t care about where he sleeps and all that. He doesn’t have any fear. … For him, life and death is one in the same, two sides of the same coin. … I’d love to be that guy and feel like that — I think I’m getting closer by the day.”
Also propelling the story forward is librettist Gene Scheer and composer Jake Heggie’s music, all of which was written with the audience in mind, according to conductor Joseph Mechavich.
“(Heggie) is a singer’s composer; he loves and adores the voice,” the conductor said. The music supports the drama, but (it’s also) able to capture the heartbeat of not just the character but of the moment. … It’s an amazing, epic masterpiece. I’ve conducted it twice. It’s my favorite opera.”
While Dallas Opera premiered “Moby-Dick” in 2010, Utah Opera created a production from the ground up that is designed to be more accessible to regional opera companies. In fact, as soon as the company’s weeklong run of “Moby-Dick” is completed, the adjustable set and alterable costumes will be sent to Pennsylvania where Pittsburgh Opera will stage the production in March.
Utah Opera’s staging of “Moby-Dick” also ushers in a transition for the company as it begins to embrace a new wave of opera.
“I think American opera companies now only succeed or are much more healthy if they’re doing new work,” Honeywell said. “In the companies that I’ve worked in around the country, the ones that are still doing just the bread and butter are struggling. They have to be pushing the envelope because I think the audiences are demanding it and they’re getting bored with the stories.”
As a modern American opera, “Moby-Dick” also gives the singers a rare opportunity to sing in their native tongue — an opportunity that is simultaneously easy and challenging.
“Sometimes it’s more difficult singing in English because you have more choices,” Honeywell said. “I know what I want to say, I know what my intention is, but I may not sing the words that (are written) … because I speak this language. In Italian … I’m limited to what the librettist has given me. But obviously, when you’re speaking your own language, you can invest so much more into it. It’s a double-sided sword.”Comment on this story
Like Capt. Ahab's struggle to capture the whale that tormented him — or perhaps an English student trying to make it through their story — staging "Moby-Dick" the opera has been a tale of perseverance, but one that for Honeywell has been well worth it.
“To be able to take a novel like ‘Moby-Dick’ and condense it down to a story that’s told in less than three hours is phenomenal,” Honeywell said. “It’s just incredible.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera’s “Moby-Dick”
When: Jan. 20, 22, 24 and 26, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 28, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $15-$100