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Taking Odds and Payoffs on Moby Dick

I would place my bet that Canadian tenor Ben Heppner will withdraw from October’s scheduled performances of Jake Heggie’s opera “Moby Dick” handing the role of Captain Ahab over to his comrade Jay Hunter Morris. In February, Heppner withdrew from  the San Diego Opera’s performances of the same work, citing illness. This comes upon a string of recent cancellations, quite often replaced by Morris, including withdrawing from the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle in 2011.

Comparing the two tenors, Morris, who’s voice has often sounded crude to me, has sounded quite excellent in recent years, especially in the broadcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle. Heppner, however, has made a good name for himself. It is a shame to hear of any singer falling into vocal decline, but it is unfortunately inevitable. This may, however, just be a rough patch for Heppner, and tenors tend to have the most fragile voices that are the most susceptible to illness.

If I may gloat, twelve years ago I bought a student ticket to hear Heppner at the top of his form at Berkeley’s 700-seat Hertz Hall. The hall was half-empty. The lesson to take away from this is the modern trend of opera companies casting works years in advance 1) locks in singers who are in poor condition, furthering their vocal difficulty and giving them undue career pressure and 2) prevents audiences from hearing singers, especially young or re-emerging singers, who are in good form. Anyone who has witnessed a stunning last-minute replacement knows multiple years are not needed to prepare for a role.

On the subject of Moby Dick, I think it is high time that somebody should put his/her foot down and admonish the SF Opera to stop its over-liberal use of the word “premiere.” Although the SF Opera co-commissioned the work (which is the way these things get done nowadays), it was first performed by the Dallas Opera way back in 2010, and has since been performed by the  co-commissioning main opera companies in Adelaide (Australia), Calgary, and San Diego. “Bay Area premiere” doesn’t cut it, neither does “company premiere.” It’s not even a new production, and all the key production people fly in anyway.