Jake Heggie’s whale of an opera, Moby-Dick, makes its east coast premiere at The Kennedy Center this evening at the Washington National Opera. Based on the famous 19th-century novel by Herman Melville and with libretto by Gene Scheer, Moby-Dick promises to be an exciting performance with incredible sets and theatrical effects. Evan Rogister conducts a talented cast directed by celebrated American Director Leonard Foglia.
Three of the show’s stars, Baritone Eric Greene (Queequeg), Soprano Talise Trevigne (Pip), and Baritone Matthew Worth (Starbuck), took time during their busy rehearsal preparations to graciously answer a few questions about their experiences working with Moby-Dick.
Teal: How did you get involved with WNO’s production of Moby-Dick?
Eric Greene: I had an audition for Washington National Opera a few years ago, just as a general hearing. The result from the audition was the role of Queequeg in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. Very exciting!
Talise Trevigne: I have been involved with the opera Moby-Dick since its inception. I met with the creative team in 2009 and worked with Jake Heggie to create the character of Pip. It is a huge honor and luxury to have a role written for you by one of the world’s greatest composers.
Matthew Worth: I auditioned for the part while in Santa Fe three summers ago. I was singing Valentin in Faust that summer and soon after the audition, I got word that I was cast. It must have gone well enough!
Why did you want to play your character, and how do you relate to him?
Eric: Having some knowledge of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, I remembered the character Queequeg being from an island in the South Pacific and how he came to be a part of the Pequod as the lead harpooner; I was very excited to see how this charter was going to be portrayed through music. I find that like Queequeg we are both very serious about our jobs. In our case we view it more like a calling or an extension of ourselves.
Talise: I was and remain fascinated by the character Pip. He is such a departure from my standard repertoire, and a great challenge and privilege.
Matthew: The more time that I spend with Starbuck, the more I relate to him: his love of wife and child (though for now, I only have a beautiful wife back in West Hartford), of home, of God. His courage and strength in the face of adversity is inspiring.
Did you have a chance to meet and work with composer Jack Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer? Were you familiar with their works before you began working on Moby Dick? What suggestions and advice did they offer you and the cast?
Eric: No, I did not have an opportunity to work with either of them beforehand. I was able to hear Jake’s opera Dead Man Walking in Baltimore.
Matthew: I’ve worked with both Jake and Gene a number of times before coming to WNO. I first met Jake while working on his Three Decembers in 2010 in Chicago. He was, and continues to be, a gracious and generous soul – I’m proud to know him. I got to know Gene very well a couple of summers ago. We were performing Oklahoma! together at Central City Opera in CO. I was Curly and he was Ali Hakim and we had a phenomenal time. Gene is one of the most intelligent men we have in our business – as librettist, as composer, as a performer he is unparalleled.
How would you describe Jack Heggie’s score? What do you admire about it?
Eric: In one word: masterful. I admire the fact that the score is very difficult for all of us on stage, but it is so well-written the audience member are just able to sit back and enjoy it without ever knowing its difficulties for the singers, and that’s why I say masterful. Get ready, get comfortable, and let the waves wash over you. Get ready to fall in love with Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick.
Talise: Jake Heggie’s score is lush, rich in texture, complex in color and emotion, and chock-filled with gorgeous tunes!
Matthew: Jake came into his own with this score, so to compare his work with others doesn’t do it justice. There are Wagnerian and Debussian colors in his music while still holding true to American speech patterns –it’s highly intelligent and accessible simultaneously.
What is your favorite aria you sing in this production, and what does the audience learn about your character during the aria?
Eric: Although there are many, I think my favorite is when I am teaching the character Greenhorn about the dangers and duties of being on a whale boat and especially his duties as a Tub Oarsman. I think here the audience learns the real passion and serious nature of Queequeg.
Talise: My favorite part of the role of Pip is his mad scene. It is where you learn of his power as a seer, and of his unfortunate demise.
Matthew: My favorite sing in the show is the aria at the end of Act One. Captain Ahab has held a gun to my head in the previous scene (for insubordination) and I’ve come back to his cabin to speak with him. Ahab is asleep –I pick up his musket and contemplate killing him in his bed. In this aria, the audience learns about Starbuck’s inner struggle: is it wrong to take out a madman who may be sailing this crew to deadly harm?
What is the best advice Director Leonard Foglia and conductor Evan Rogister have given you on playing and singing your role?
Eric: Lenny’s best advice to me was just be in the moment, don’t telegraph it. Maestro’s best advice was that Jake’s music is always moving forward, so keep all of the momentum consistently forward.
Talise: Director Leonard Foglia has taught me so very much about being a singing actor, about always searching for what is truth, and he has helped me to grow so very much in my craft. I am forever changed as an artist because of him.
Matthew: Speak and listen. Really listen.
What’s been your “white whale” while preparing for your role? What have been some of the major challenges you’ve had learning your role?
Eric: I guess I could say gaining continuity with the rhythmic modulations.
Talise: Singing the role has always been a tailor-made fit. Flying whilst singing has always been my white whale.
There are many special effects and fabulous costumes by Jane Greenwood in this production. Which ones are your favorites?
Eric: I would say I love them all. Mine are very comfortable and I appreciate that!
Matthew: I love the effect created to simulate the three boats rowing out to harpoon whales and consequently losing Pip out at sea – it is masterful. I also am in constant awe of Carl Tanner walking around on a sloped stage in a peg leg. I’m glad it’s him and not me!
Have you performed in either D.C., the Kennedy Center, or with the WNO before? How do D.C. audiences compare to other audiences?
Eric: Yes I have performed with WNO before and it is one of my favorite places to perform for all the obvious reasons. The audiences here are non-pretentious and warm. They know when something is good or not. I like that.
What is your dream role you’d like to play in the future, and why?
Eric: I would love to play the role of Renato in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. This is the opera and role that caused me to fall in love with opera.
Talise: My dream role in this show is Ahab. I have already worked out the leg and I’m secretly covering Mr. Tanner! Real answer: I am currently living my dream of singing all of the heroines in Les contes d’Hoffmann. I depart from Washington to the Israeli Opera to sing my third production in four months!
Matthew: I struggle with the idea of “dream role.” I love being challenged by intelligent music and character – my dream is to inhabit and understand every role I portray on the stage with conviction.