I live-tweeted watching Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick when it was broadcast on Great Performances this past Friday night (performed by the San Francisco Opera). All in all, it was a great production. Well sung, well staged, well plotted, with great video elements that enhanced the staging considerably. A very impressive adaptation of the story and one that hit all the major themes of the book while still being dramatic.
Musically, I could have used about 15% less conventional harmony. I don’t know a lot of Heggie’s music but what I’ve heard has been very straight ahead in terms of melody and harmony. While Moby Dick steered clear of being cliche in terms of its musical language, I feel like it needed more pungent harmonies at times. In many ways, it sounded like an opera from about 120 years ago. Or Janaceck, I suppose. I suppose that is the smart thing to do if you want an opera to enter the repertoire but…well…it didn’t do it for me.
Basically, Moby Dick was the opposite experience of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. THAT opera was musically adventurous while totally destroying the drama/plot elements. Who would have thought that Alice would be a more angst-ridden and expressionist experience than Moby Dick?
So what do you do? Do you favor clear dramatic storytelling over a more contemporary musical language? Does one really have to be at the expense of the other? How much of opera is a musical experience vs. a dramatic one? There are operas I’ve really enjoyed musically recently but found them dramatically lacking. In my own writing, I have been trending towards clear shapes/drama/trajectories but I think I’ve been doing it in a less-than-conventional pitch language. Of course, no opera company has invested six to seven figures in the staging of anything I’ve done.