You consider yourself to be a pretty sophisticated citizen of Chicago. You know the best restaurants and the hot bars. You can lead a guided tour of Millennium Park, the Bean and the Magnificent Mile. You go to ball games…Bears, Bulls, Cubs, even a Sox game that one time because you support Chicago over all. You’ve been to most of the museums and some shows at the iconic Chicago Theater. You've done Lollapalooza and all of the street fairs. You’ve seen the Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” and you’ve seen “Hamilton.” But you have not been to the opera. Because you hate opera.
I know you think you hate opera, but here are five reasons why you should see the Chicago Opera Theater’s “Moby-Dick” this weekend.
1. STORY. One of the difficult parts of watching opera is that it takes a while to get used to the cadence of the music and the singing, all while trying to figure out what is happening with the characters. In the case of “Moby-Dick,” the story is familiar. “Moby-Dick”’s story is straight from Herman Melville’s classic American novel. Our young hero, Greenhorn---his title more than his name (Andrew Bidlack, baritone), joins the crew of the Pequod, a whaling boat in New England. He meets a South Pacific Islander, Queequeg (Vince Wallace, bass-baritone), who becomes his friend and teaches him all things whaling. The first mate of the Pequod is Starbuck (Aleksey Bogdanov, baritone) who just wants to focus on the business of business: he wants to find whales, render them and get home to his wife and son. Pip (Summer Hassan, soprano) is a 12-year-old, black cabin boy who becomes a surrogate son for the crew. Ahab (Richard Cox) is the captain of the Pequod and his obsession with finding Moby-Dick, the whale that took his leg, drives him to madness. Think high-seas adventure on a boat with a madman. Think “Deadliest Catch” with music.
2. SETS. The story takes place primarily on the deck of the Pequod, so the stage is set up to be reminiscent of a giant schooner with an 11-foothhigh mast and a 30-inch-high rotating disk. The scrim is painted to look like the roiling sea and the lighting gives it vivid movement. Strobe lights make the storm scenes feel ultra-realistic. The Pequod’s deck seamlessly transitions into four smaller whalers, where a few members of the crew are taken on a “Nantucket sleighride,” the dragging of a whaleboat by a harpooned whale while whaling. The costuming is also remarkable: each character has been outfitted with clothing that has been replicated from photos of actual sailors from the period. Perhaps most compelling is to watch Captain Ahab maneuver the stage on a peg-leg. Richard Cox trained with a physical therapist to be able to wear the prosthetic properly and spends 56 straight minutes standing with his leg tied up.
3. MUSIC. “Moby-Dick” was written by Jake Heggie, who is considered to be the father of New American Opera. The music is in English, with subtitles, and is not stuffy, old fashioned or boring. The cast is large: 10 principals, 4 dancers and 39 choristers, so it is exciting to watch the transformation of the motley crew into a single organism over a year and a half aboard the Pequod. A comic dance scene morphs into something darker. This adaptation of “Moby-Dick” has been criticized for sounding “too much like cinema.” It is very contemporary, with lots of acting and movement. This is definitely not the “Park and Bark” methods of the traditional opera, where characters spend all of the time singing from one spot on the stage. Opera is simply a sung story; “Moby-Dick” does that with every inch of the stage and even out into the auditorium. Two musical highlights: Aleksey Bogdanov (Starbuck) is particularly compelling and there is a song where the choristers are out in the auditorium, singing in unison, which is extraordinarily powerful.
4. CHICAGO OPERA THEATER. I cannot stress this enough: Chicago Opera Theater is the most exciting theater company in Chicago. Founded in 1973, the company has staged more than 125 operas, including over 65 Chicago premieres and more than 35 operas by American composers, including the Chicago premiere of Tchaikovsky’s last opera, “Iolanta,” where they used SMELLOVISION (the princess lived in a garden and the audience could actually smell the roses). Chicago Opera Theater has developed an education program called Opera for All (OFA) which engages students through music and storytelling to enrich the lives of youth and foster a lifelong appreciation for the arts. In addition to its programmed mainstage season, Chicago Opera Theater is devoted to the development and production of new opera in the United States through the Vanguard Initiative. The Vanguard Initiative mentors emerging opera composers, invests time and talent in new opera at various stages of the creative process and presents the Living Opera Series to showcase new and developing work. This is a theater company that is worth supporting.
5. GAME OF THRONES/AVENGERS/MOBY-DICK. Here is a little tidbit about opera: it’s generally divided into comedy and tragedy. Comedies end in a wedding. Tragedies end in A LOT of death. Spoiler: there are no weddings on the Pequod. Which means you can spend the majority of the show on America’s current favorite pastime: speculating about who will live and who will die.
“Moby-Dick” is a stunning work of extraordinarily powerful music and gripping storytelling. You do not want to miss it. “Moby-Dick” is only playing on Sunday, April 28 at 2:00p at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph Street). Go see it. (Don’t worry, you’ll be home in time for Game of Thrones.)