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Longtime collaborators set sail for another operatic adventure

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- In a collaboration that goes back 26 years, composer Peter Westergaard and conductor Michael Pratt have staged some 20 operas and other involved productions ranging from classic masterworks to original pieces.

Westergaard and Pratt

Composer Peter Westergaard (left) and conductor Michael Pratt are teaming up for their 20th collaboration in 26 years with ''Moby Dick: Scenes From an Imaginary Opera'' to be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall.

This month, the colleagues in Princeton's music department are taking on another project of colossal proportions that combines both of those genres: the world premiere of Westergaard's ''Moby Dick: Scenes From an Imaginary Opera.'' Westergaard has spent three years crafting a libretto from the 800-page epic of American literature by Herman Melville and setting the work to music.

''My aim was originally to do an hour-long piece. That proved to be just impossible,'' said Westergaard, noting that the final version lasts one hour and 40 minutes. The duo last collaborated on an opera based on William Shakespeare's ''The Tempest'' in 1994. The work premiered to critical acclaim and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

''For 'The Tempest,''' Westergaard said, ''I cut the text of Shakespeare's play down to about 40 percent. In this case, 'Moby Dick' is about 4 percent of the novel. Everything is really concentrated on the central story of Ahab and the way Ishmael understands it.''

For the premiere (see box below), Pratt will conduct the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a chorus prepared by Richard Tang Yuk, senior lecturer in music and conductor of the Princeton Glee Club, and five distinguished soloists.

The 1851 story, narrated by an observer named Ishmael, follows the crew of the Pequod, led by Captain Ahab, on a whaling expedition around the world. The voyage soon degenerates into a monomaniacal hunt for the legendary whale, Moby Dick, as Ahab seeks revenge on the creature that earlier in his life cost him one of his legs.

Westergaard said that the story has ''haunted'' him since adolescence. After ''The Tempest,'' he was casting about for another project and was considering a work from ancient Greece. But he was concerned about not speaking the language and having to rely on translators.

''It suddenly occurred to me: There is this Greek tragedy that I've known all my life in magnificent biblical English from the 19th century,'' he said.

Westergaard, who transferred to emeritus status in July 2001 after 33 years on the Princeton faculty, started working shortly before he retired to create a libretto that ''made sense.'' When he was close to finishing the text, he started composing the music.

One of his biggest challenges, he said, was not becoming bound by the monomaniacal, obsessive nature of the story. ''In 'The Tempest,' there is extraordinary variety of the kind of language, the kind of people, the action,'' he said. ''These worlds are separate until the very end. That variety is very helpful -- you're not so likely to become boring.''

However, with the singlemindedness running through a work like ''Moby Dick,'' ''you could easily get stuck,'' he said. ''But as I worked with the text and began to work more on the music, I began to realize that some of these passages that are so impressive and so gripping are actually very beautiful. The whale, which is for Ahab demonic, something threatening in his universe, is also described in terms of great physical beauty. So there's a combination of this thing that is extraordinarily beautiful but is also seen as an arch-enemy and emissary of the devil. That presents a good situation for the music maker.''

Bring your imagination

Most of the words in the piece are sung rather than spoken, and almost all come directly from Melville's work. A few of the commands and responses used by the officers and crew come from 19th-century manuals of seamanship in Firestone Library.

Westergaard has even incorporated an original sea shanty into the opera. He decided to write one himself after reading through 100 shanties and not finding exactly what he wanted. ''I thought I'd be able to find a hauling shanty somewhere, but none seemed quite right so I just made one up,'' he said. ''I think these are the only words in the show that are actually mine.''

The composer said he deliberately put the challenges of staging such an epic out of his mind while he was writing. In fact, the Oct. 27 performance will be a ''concert version'' of the piece with just enough costumes and lighting to help the audience tell who's who and where they are, but no action.

He calls his work ''an imaginary opera,'' meaning that the audience should ''bring your imagination along with you and be prepared to use it,'' he said. ''Don't expect to see a whale. Our singers are all consummate actors, and I'm sure they won't be able to keep from interacting with one another even though they'll be 'on book.' But the eponymous protagonist will be present in their minds and, I do hope, the audience's.''

Performing as soloists will be: tenor Robert Baker as Ishmael; baritone William Parcher as Ahab; baritone Todd Thomas as first mate Starbuck; and tenor David Kellett and bass baritone Douglas Millar in multiple roles. All are alumni of previous productions by Westergaard and Pratt, who celebrated his 25th season as conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra in 2002-03.

''Moby Dick'' represents the 20th major collaboration between the two. From their ''Magic Flute'' in 1978 (the year Pratt joined the Princeton faculty) to their ''Coronation of Poppea'' in 2001 (the year Westergaard retired from it), they produced eight operas in Alexander Hall under the aegis of the Princeton University Opera Theatre with Pratt conducting and Westergaard translating and directing. In 1984, the duo founded the June Opera Festival, later rechristened the Opera Festival of New Jersey.

Westergaard, who also earned his master's degree from Princeton in 1956 and chaired the music department from 1974 to 1978 and from 1983 to 1986, dedicated ''Moby Dick'' to Pratt, whom he has characterized as ''an absolutely first-class conductor.'' Pratt said he has ''always been honored whenever Peter entrusted his music to me.''

''Peter Westergaard was my first friend and close colleague at Prince- ton, and we soon discovered that we shared a similar addiction to music made by the human voice,'' Pratt said. ''His gifts as a composer are formidable; his gifts as a thinker about and teacher of music are irreplaceable. Princeton's music department is pre-eminent on both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and Peter's guidance and inspiration during his terms as chair are a big reason for this. The challenges we faced were always greeted by Peter with fresh and original thinking. I salute him -- old friend, close colleague, fellow conspirator and first-rate composer.''

Westergaard, who has flown skeletons on horseback over the audience's heads and built an eight-foot-wide teapot and a nine-foot-high grandfather clock during his career in opera, is still full of imagination and not ruling out a full staging of ''Moby Dick'' some day.

''I don't have the foggiest idea how to build an 80-foot whale that can take a 20-foot boat with a crew of six in its jaws, play with it, then crunch it and spit out the pieces into the ocean,'' he said. ''I'm happy to leave the problem of how to make such events visually convincing to the next generation and a different kind of technology.''

''Moby Dick: Scenes From an Imaginary Opera'' will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall. Tickets are free and are available by contacting the box office at 258-5000.