A Whale of an Opera

Lighting techniques and multimedia help transform the stage into the Peqoud. ©Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera.

It’s not often that marine science and the opera find common ground, but the two will merge this February in the San Diego Opera’s highly anticipated production of “Moby-Dick.” Based on the Herman Melville novel, the acclaimed new opera focuses on the obsessive relationship that Captain Ahab has with an albino sperm whale that he believes crippled him on a whaling expedition.

To mark the occasion, Birch Aquarium at Scripps teamed with the Opera earlier this month to host Moby-Dick: Science, Sound and Struggles Between Whales and Men. The public lecture was part of the Opera’s Community Conversations, an annual lecture series that explores various aspects of upcoming Opera seasons.

A sold-out crowd listened as Nicolas Reveles, the Opera’s Geisel director of education and outreach, and Aaron Thode, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, discussed the science of whales as presented by the book and how modern science has grown in its understanding of the magnificent sperm whale. For example, today’s scientists know that sperm whales travel through the ocean in narrow paths, which Herman Melville referred to as “veins” in the mid-1800s.

Thode studies the physics of underwater sound and the acoustic behavior of marine mammals, including the notoriously recluse sperm whale. He shared an incredible video that he captured in 2006 of a sperm whale stealing fish from a fisher’s line. It was the first time such behavior had been recorded. The footage revealed that clicking sounds made by a hunting sperm whale could help scientists determine the size of the animal, an approach that could be used to more accurately count their populations.

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner will reprise the role of Ahab. © Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera.

“Trying to study whales is like trying to study humans, but only being able to see their shoes,” Thode said.

Reveles shared a video of the opera’s dramatic overture and discussed the stunning creativity required to bring Captain Ahab’s emotional voyage to the stage. Innovative multimedia, high-tech projections, and lighting techniques help convey the experience of being on a towering ship in the middle of a vast ocean, despite few material set pieces.

“Moby-Dick,” which premiered in Dallas in 2010, has received rave reviews. The Associated Press called it an “achingly beautiful, magnificently sung and gorgeously staged” production. Audiences have sustained standing ovations for several minutes after the final curtain.

“We are thrilled to share this opera with the San Diego community,” Reveles said.

“Moby-Dick” will be performed Feb. 18, 21, 24 & 26 at the San Diego Civic Theater. Tickets start at $40. For more information, visit http://www.sdopera.com.

Thode’s Sperm Whale Fishing Video:

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego