LA Opera’s Moby Dick Review - An Artistic and Rich Experience of An Historic World

Moby Dick is one of the greatest classics of American literature, although, as conductor James Conlon says in his pre-show lecture, everyone knows it but only one per cent of us have actually read the 700 page tome! 

Capt. Ahab

LA Opera’s dazzling production distills the essential themes of Herman Melville’s masterpiece along with Jake Heggie’s masterful music and Gene Scheer’s libretto, as a sad story of a world run amok by a leader (Captain Ahab, tenor Jay Hunter Morris) thwarted by his own self importance and egotistical drive. The LA Opera is perfect under Conlon, the cast is outstanding with each voice spot-on this its essential character.

Kudos go to the scenery designer, Robert Brill, along with the projections director, Elaine J. McCarthy, for their inspiring mixture of stagecraft and wild videos of sea and sky, and their projections both symbolic and realistic of life on the sea.


The Sea

The universe of an 1800s whaling ship is where it all takes place.  Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab is commanding, thoughtful and intelligent, but his prior incident of having his leg eaten by a great white whale has left him with a bitter drive to kill.  That vengeance distorts his views and blackens his leadership. Hunter Morris’s energetic enactment of the character is spell-binding.  He is extremely intelligent and recognizes the foul course he is on.  Although he occasionally bemoans giving up the joys of life, he chooses to embrace his course fully.

(Ahab’s brilliant prosthetic wooden leg left me gaping and staring to try to figure out where his other leg went.  Perhaps this is the work of Tony winning costume designer Jane Greenwood.) The fact that he is the lead in this weighty piece with one knee propped up during the entire action is a feat in itself.

It is the few crew members whose spirits see beyond the oceanic horizon, who question and rise up and keep their eye on the bigger picture who give real meaning and drama to the adventure. They can see the Captain’s flaws, although there seems to be little they can do to re-steer his destructive course. They give texture and meaning to the historic adventure.


The exotic Queequeg, is embodied beautifully by South African bass-baritone  Musa Ngqungwana. He is the spiritual, albeit “pagan” presence on ship, who prays and carries with him a strong sense of his South Pacific Islands.  He is bigger than life, and the only one onboard with the “Christian” mercy and kindness to rescue a poor boy lost at sea. Whatever happens onboard, he carries his own large world inside him which is big enough to include young orphan Greenhorn, played by Joshua Guerrero.


Guerrero expresses the sweetest most vulnerable sounding tenor as the young man who has no family and nothing to do on land and who is looking for a calling at sea.   He has no preconceptions, and thus his reactions are pure and innocent. Unlike the majority of men on ship, he knows the world has gone off beam and he finds great comfort in his friendship with Queequeg as he seems to be choosing what is important to him. Melville’s book is written from his eyes and observations. "I am Ishmail."


Baritone Morgan Smith, bringing to life the role of Starbuck, the first mate, knows full well the deviousness of Ahab and has the most influence over him, at one point making him realize the loves of wife and family he has left behind. It is powerful and moving as he speaks up for and celebrates his life left behind on Nantucket and desire for a safe return for him and the crew. He stands for his boy and his wife and knows full well the dangers of never seeing them again. 

Pip, the young boy onboard expressed by soprano Jacqueline Echols cannot well survive in this company of macho sailors who would rather continue their journey than search for him among the waves.  With his youth and musical nature, he has no resources to protect himself.


One theme that is underlying the story is that of man vs. nature.…

In today’s world, whaling is largely outlawed and the few who cross the law are vigourously pursued by the likes of Sea Shepherd and thousands of activists worldwide.

Perhaps the world is waking up to the majesty and importance of nature and animals.  News has only now emerged of a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress, to prohibit captivity of orcas. This bill would recognize the whales for their own value and right to live in the world freely in their own habitat. It proposes that it is not the right of humans to enslave, kill and use whales for their own uses.

As we were celebrating this new bill and victory for nature a few hours earlier, it was suddenly jarring to hear the rousing choruses of the whalers hunting the whales, calling them “monsters” and feeling like crusaders against nature. It’s the old patriarchal thinking of dominating nature and forcing it to bend to the will of mankind.

What made that part endurable for me as an animal activist, if not enjoyable, was knowing that in the end the whale, and nature would persevere, and blind-sighted thinking would not.  Unfortunately, innocent lives are caught up in the meantime, both animal and human.


Photos by Craig T. Matthews

Georja Umano is an actor and animal activist.



213 972 8001

Future productions of Moby Dick at LA Opera:

Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2pm

Thursday, Nov 19 at 7:30pm

Sunday, Nov. 22 at 2pm

Saturday, Nov. 28 at 7:30pm

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