Feb. 22-March 8
Washington National Opera
The Kennedy Center
2700 F St., NW
Ask someone what their “white whale” is and you’ll get a variety of answers. We’re all chasing something, almost to the exclusion of everything else, and the tenor lead of Washington National Opera’s East Coast premiere of “Moby Dick” is no different.
“My white whale is raising [my] child to be the best he can be,” says Carl Tanner, the Virginia native who still calls the state home, which he shares with his partner of 22 years and their 5-year-old son. “If you were to ask me that question 10 years ago, I would have said having the biggest career I can have, to become famous and rich and all that crap we buy into. Now, it’s making sure he is educated and has a good life, making sure that he’s accepted by people he likes and loves as a normal kid.”
Tanner, in the midst of a strong operatic career after a life as a truck driver and bounty hunter, plays legendary anti-hero Captain Ahab, the peg-legged whaler tormented by the white whale who devoured his leg in a hunting disaster. The opera of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel received its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010, followed by a stint at the San Francisco Opera in 2012, but this is Tanner’s first crack at the daunting role. In fact, he received some sobering news when he spoke to Ahab’s second interpreter, Jay Hunter Morris.
“Jay said, ‘Carl, let me put your fears at rest and confirm this will be the most difficult role you’ve done.’ And he’s right.”
The character’s music is certainly part of the challenge.
“There’s nothing tonal about his part,” Tanner continues. “When everybody else is in a major chord, he’s in minor. His whole persona goes against everyone else in the show.”
Yet the captain’s characterization is equally challenging. Ahab, easily lampooned in the popular imagination, must reveal sides alternately wild and contemplative, megalomaniacal and heartbroken — aspects that gay composer Jake Heggie wrestled with when writing the opera.
“He was the toughest character to crack musically,” Heggie says. “He almost seems like a mythological character … I had to go to a place in the libretto where we see the aching individual with a deep heart, who recognizes how wounded he is and he’s losing control and he can’t stop himself. That’s a person I can recognize.”
Heggie, whose father committed suicide when the composer was only 10, recognizes the calling card of debilitating mental illness in Melville’s depiction of this tortured soul.
“I think Ahab is classic for manic depressive. How could you blame him? He saw his leg chewed off by a whale and survived. He’s angry at what’s happening to him, yet he also, like some people dealing with mental illness, likes the manic part.”
Ahab’s unexpected tenderness is the emotional crux of the opera for both tenor and composer, and the role’s humanity is revealed through the aching relationship between lost fathers and hopeful sons.
“My favorite chapter in the book, titled ‘The Symphony’ is a scene between Ahab and [first mate] Starbuck,” Heggie says. “They have this heartrending, revealing conversation about children back home.”
“Ahab says, ‘Ah, Starbuck it is a mild wind,’” says Tanner, detailing how the characters then recall the children back on land. “Starbuck goes for the jugular — ‘O captain, grand old heart, let me turn this boat around and head back for Nantucket.’ We sing this beautiful duet about our two boys waiting, how they’re standing at the window.”
Tanner sees something of himself in this pivotal moment of the opera, the longing for the idyllic life back home in conflict with the driving achievement of a life’s work.
“Nine to 11 months of the year, I’m on the road. I’ve missed so many milestones of my son growing up. I missed his birth. I missed his walking. I just said to my partner last night, ‘He’s going to be starting kindergarten this year.’ You have kids and it completely changes everything you’re about. It’s never ever about you any more, and you don’t mind that.”
Heggie, too, has a son, although his is in the middle of his senior year of high school. The composer admits that the people in one’s life are what truly matter, even when you’re a successful, well-lauded artist. A number of his friends and family, including his husband, will be attending the premiere in Washington.
“Those are the occasions that mean the most,” he says. “The only ones that really register as memorable are the ones where your chosen and your blood family manage to get there and share it with you.”
Given how smoothly things are currently going for Heggie, he stumbled when asked to name his own white whale.
“I have a very full, wonderful life, and I feel gratitude every day that I get to be alive. I don’t think that there’s one thing — I believe we’re lucky to have the time we have.”
Yet days later, after further thought, he leaves a voicemail message.
“A blank page. I project whatever I’m thinking or feeling onto that, and I’m always changing it. It’s always there, it’s always out of reach and within reach. That’s my white whale.”