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Moby-Dick: Big doesn't begin to describe it

Creating an opera is an epic feat by any measure. But you'd have to be as maniacally driven as Ahab himself to distill Herman Melville's 212,758-word classic into two acts with a cast requiring eight soloists and a 40-man chorus, as well as a plot that climaxes with the sinking of the Pequod.

Melville's captain goes down with his ship in a failed quest to subdue the whale that takes his sanity along with his leg; however, San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie has hooked his prey with Moby-Dick. En route to its Canadian premiere tonight, it has won acclaim from critics around the world. "It's grand – and it's good!" raved Opera World just after the production hit the stage in Dallas.

It's come at a price – a cool $1.5-million toward creating the costumes and 43,000-kilogram set, and hiring Heggie (best known for his operatic adaptation of Dead Man Walking). It's also taken the collaboration of five international opera companies: Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, the State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera (which is investing an additional $1-million to stage Moby-Dick for its three-night run at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.)

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The participation of Calgary Opera among such heavy hitters should come as a surprise only to those unaware of the organization's 40-year commitment to developing new work and Canadian artists. True, it's a comparatively small organization: San Francisco's yearly budget is $90-million; Calgary's is $5-million. "A lot of American companies of this size wouldn't take it on," says American opera and theatre director Leonard Foglia, who is making his debut with Calgary Opera. "There are only a few companies that have obviously nurtured an audience that is looking for that bold, original, new thing."

But then, there's nothing safe about Calgary Opera's programming, which has included four world premieres in the past nine seasons. An even riskier focus, both in terms of money and audience engagement, is the company's commitment to commissioning new Canadian mainstage operas, which so far have included Filumena, Frobisher and The Inventor.

It thinks big on talent, too: Star Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is recreating the pivotal role of Captain Ahab, written for him by Heggie. It's a coup for Calgary, given the international demand for the Wagner specialist. (Heppner hasn't performed for the Canadian Opera Company in 17 years, although he will be appearing in next season's production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.)

"A lot of people think the director sets the mood for the room, but no one sets the mood more than your leading man," says Foglia, who first worked with Heppner on the Dallas production, and has directed such stars as Laurence Fishburne and James Earl Jones on Broadway.

On this production, much will be made of the challenge posed by the peg leg Heppner has to wear throughout the two-and-a-half-hour opera, which forces him to bend his left leg behind him, parallel to the floor.

But more noteworthy is Foglia's inspired manipulation of space and imagery in the staging. It's one thing to sing about a whale hunt. It's quite another to actually sink a whaling ship. Even Heggie didn't think it could be done, initially offering instead to emphasize musicality in the terrifying final battle between Ahab and his nemesis. "I told Jake, just do whatever you feel is emotionally correct and I'll figure it out," says Foglia. "He gave me nine bars to sink the Pequod and that ended up determining a lot of the style of the production. With nine bars, you know there isn't going to be a realistic ship onstage."

Oh, but how glorious it is to know your limits and still have no fear of trying something new.

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Foglia's state-of-the-art solution was to commission Elaine J. McCarthy of Wicked fame to create video and animations that transform Robert Brill's multilevel, 500-piece set into a 19th-century whaling ship adrift at sea. "I went through about 9,000 options, then Robert and I took parts of all the different versions and pieced them together," Foglia says. "Once I knew how I was going to do the whaleboat hunt, I worked backward from that."

To safely man the masts of the Pequod, which rise 11 metres above the stage in Calgary, a call went out to climbers from nearby Canmore. Fourteen are taking part in their first opera, joining 40 singers (most with day jobs) ranging in age from 18 to 70 who make up the all-male chorus.

"Can you believe I get to sing with Ben Heppner?" said an awestruck petroleum engineer during a break in rehearsal. He must master Foglia's exacting stage direction, pulling ropes in intricate syncopation with Heggie's demanding score.

Standouts in the all-Canadian cast include baritone Brett Polegato and tenor Colin Ainsworth, whose Greenhorn (the opera's name for the narrator who famously introduces himself at the end as Ishmael) is the moral counterpoint to the demoniac Ahab.

"Ishmael goes from an empty shell of a person to a whole person who can love," says Heggie of the part, for which he added, in the 11th hour of development, an aria sure to become a modern classic. "It is a real operatic journey."

Note to readers This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Dead Man Walking was not premiered by Calgary Opera. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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