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Melville Gets Viennese Treatment


Rockwell Kent's Great White Whale
Rockwell Kent’s Great White Whale

Not too many years ago, it would have been very unlikely to imagine Mellville’s “Moby Dick” as a “condensed and streamlined” opera sung by children. That all changed in 2004 when the Vienna Boys’ Choir debuted Raul Gehringer’s setting and the Musikverein reverberated with a famous call from Ishmael. On May 3rd through May 5th, The PALS Children’s Chorus, 185 voices strong, will bring the whaleship Pequod, a great white whale, and an obsessive captain to Pine Manor’s Ellsworth Theater in Chestnut Hill, in the Amercian premiere of The Tale of Moby Dick. According to PALS artistic director Andy Icochea Icochea,Though the script is based on Hermann Melville’s masterpiece of American literature, it has been adapted so as to be accessible to a cast and an audience that include children. Musically, though composed with modern techniques, the opera maintains the tradition of the melodic leitmotif, making its intricate sonorities accessible and engaging for both music lovers and the general public, both children and adults.”

Ichochea and PALS’ stage director Chris O’ Neill had some thoughts for BMInt’s readers.

BMInt: Is the opera as long as the novel?

Chris O’ Neill: Yes, it is fourteen-weeks-long. No, it’s very streamlined and condensed.

Is this a production that people will enjoy even if they don’t have children participating? 

Definitely. Much of what we do as “children’s theater” is primarily educationally driven, or process-driven as opposed to product-driven. But children’s choral performance and opera is absolutely an art form in its own right, composed to be performed by children’s voices. So it is both educationally driven and artistically driven. This is a choral/classical/dramatic work of art that anyone can enjoy. The sets are done in an abstract style that is meant to evoke a fishing village and whaling ship without being overly literal. We want to honor the spirit of the novel’s settings without being slaves to detail. There is a dreamlike quality to this version.

As a New York theater critic recently noted in reference to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed, “…it takes a fool or perhaps a genius to adapt one of the greatest American novels for the stage.”  I would not presume to suggest that we are geniuses. I’ m not sure we’re fools either, but from the outset of this project, there were several daunting questions. Like, “How?” and “Why?” and “What???”  Perhaps most importantly was the question that our Artistic Director posed to me right off the bat: “How can we make this material feel directly relevant to children?”  It is, after all, a novel about an old man looking backwards on the events of his life and forward to his legacy. And it’s about pilgrimage. And wonder. And deep, primal fear. And, perhaps most famously, obsession—which, I was quick to remind Andy, is something that most middle-schoolers understand quite well, in their own way. But herein lays the glory of the novel: it is, like most literary works that merit the descriptor “great,” about many things, and the meaning one draws from it has everything to do with the individual doing the drawing. All great works of art are ultimately noisy, stormy, emotional ink blots in which the reader, viewer or participant sees what they want and need to see. We have kept our vision for this production abstract enough to allow for many layers of interpretation, while also making it as inclusive as possible for our ever-expanding population of students. We hope that you too will draw your own meaning—and experience some of the wonder and fear that Melville intended—as you watch the children of PALS bring this classic to life.

From the Artistic Director and Conductor:

Andy Icochea Icochea: The Tale of Moby Dick is an opera composed with children in mind as both performers and audience members. It grew out of the fascination composer Raoul Gehringer felt after reading the novel as a young teenager, during one of his long tours as a singer with the Vienna Boys Choir. Many years later, he brought the story to the stage, having accepted a commission from “Allegro,” a children’s program of the Vienna Musikverein.

Former conductor of the Vienna Choirboys, Andrew Ichochea Ichochea now directs Pals
Former conductor of the Vienna Choirboys, Andrew Ichochea Ichochea now directs PALS

Gehringer approached writer Tina Breckwoldt to create a libretto for his opera. “It took almost a year of research and many tries until we found a way to convey the story and its complexities in a way that would be appropriate for all ages,” Breckwoldt recalls, which had been a specific requirement of the Musikverein. After two years of collaboration, the opera was premiered by the Vienna Boys Choir in 2004 to the delight of children and adults and to critical acclaim.

Despite its success, The Tale of Moby Dick remained dormant until 2013, when both PALS and then the Vienna Boys Choir each chose it as their season’ s staged production. “It’ s been almost nine years since the premiere, during which time the opera was not performed,” Gehringer told me in February. “Then, all of a sudden, there are two productions on both sides of the Atlantic almost at the same time. It makes me very happy.”

Both the soloist and choir parts are technically challenging and represent a big step in our singers’ development, as well as their artistic courageousness. The work’s musical material is through-composed, revealing a combination of techniques from various periods of the history of music. There is the use of the chorale to set the mood of the story; a leitmotif identifies characters (Ahab and the whale) as well as events (the hunt, the chores on the boat); a tone row is treated as a Fugue subject; tone sets hint at the personalities of Stubb and Starbuck; polytonality infuses uncertainty to moments of tension in the plot, and; even a well-known theme from St. Matthew’ s Passion is heard in juxtaposition with the reprise of the opening chorale towards the end, as the crew of the Pequod reflects on their recent ordeal. In the festive finale, the entire cast of 175 children celebrates Moby Dick as a force of the natural world.

The Tale of Moby Dick by Raul Gehringer

PALS’s Children’s Chorus and Chamber Orchestra, Andy Icochea Icochea, conductor

Friday, May 3 at 7pm
Saturday, May 4 at 3pm and 7pm
Sunday, May 5 at 3pm
Ellsworth Theater, Pine Manor College
400 Heath St Chestnut Hill, MA

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