Does the World Really Need an Opera of "Moby Dick"?

Review by Howard Gradet
Conceived, composed and written by Rinde Eckert
Directed by David Schweizer
At Center Stage (Head Theater) through June 16th
(Call 410-332-0033)

Over the past 50 years or so, there's been an unfortunate tendency to convert vital literary works into operas—bad ones.
Rinde Eckert's "And God Created Great Whales" is as elusive a work as the great whale of his title—Moby-Dick. Eckert's 80-minute theater piece, which would be as comfortable at Theatre Project as it is in the Head Theater at Center Stage, is about a piano tuner turned composer who is struggling to complete his opera of "Moby-Dick" before his memory, which is quickly fading, is gone forever.

Aiding him in his struggle are several color-coded tape recorders with a variety of messages and instructions, hung on wires in Kevin Adams' spare and evocative set, and a muse Nathan has created from his memory of an opera singer whose piano he tunes and whose career he has followed with all the focus of a stalker.

The two performers, Eckert and Nora Cole, a striking and multi-talented actress and singer who moves with the lithe grace of a trained dancer (which she might well be), bring pathos and humor to the relationship of the artist and his muse. She becomes his memory, keeping him on track, aimed toward his goal of finishing his opera before he literally drowns—his condition will degenerate to the point where he will no longer remember to breathe.

Up to a point, "Great Whales" is a really interesting and successful study of the Artist's obsession—every true artist must be obsessed by his subject—and finding the obvious parallel between Nathan and Ahab works up to a point, though it's a pretty easy connection to make.

But the bigger question that Eckert raises, and that his work answers with a resounding "No!" has to do with the nature of opera and its tendency, at least in the last fifty years or so, to turn vital literary works into leaden, spiritless parodies of themselves. Does the world really need an opera of "Moby-Dick"? Probably no more than it needs the dud opera versions of "Streetcar Named Desire," "Mourning Becomes Electra," or "Antony and Cleopatra."

And that's where the artistic core of "Great Whales" shows itself to be hollow—it's sad that this composer might not win his race to finish his opera—it's always sad when an artist isn't able to realize his vision—but given the music that Eckert has written for Nathan's opera, with the exception of the beautiful climactic piece for Ahab and the vision he has just before he dies (don't look for her in Melville), the world wouldn't be missing much if this particular opera were never finished.

Now, I know an opera of "Moby-Dick" is simply the metaphor Eckert is using to parallel the obsessive quest theme of his piece and Melville's great work. But the metaphor doesn't resonate as much as it should because, for me, the obsessions of Nathan and Ahab, share little: for one, the obsession is creative, for the other, destructive. And Eckert spends a lot of his time very specifically hitting the plot points of the first half of Melville's classic in music that is either typically modern opera (that is, non-melodic and non-period), or banal (the little black cabin boy, Pip, sings "Shenandoah"—how original is that?). Eckert gives us the Cliff's Notes, with songs.

I applaud Irene Lewis' search for new and exciting work to bring to Center Stage, and this production from New York's Foundry Theatre is certainly a step in the right direction. Keep looking, Irene.

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This story was published on June 5, 2002.