Shipbuilding is an ancient profession that predates the period of recorded time. It’s an old art form that created vessels allowing the earliest humans to conquer rivers and oceans, in search of both food and adventure. Upon these ships, sailors created their own microcosm of reality upon the high seas.
Recreating a ship on stage can take many forms. A ship can be represented by actors physically moving their bodies to form a boat on stage, or it can be a giant prop that the story’s action revolves around. An image of a ship can even be projected on a scrim on stage to represent what’s not physically on stage. In Robert Brill’s grand set design for Moby-Dick, the ship consumes the entire stage. The Pequod, as the whaling ship is called, can be seen from various sides depending on the act and there are multiple parts to make this ship seem very real to singers and audience members alike.
“After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years’ voyages – The Devil-Dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient. I peered and pryed about the Devil-Dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and, finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.” – Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick
Before a single note is sung, the audience is treated to a sophisticated projection of The Pequod, projected onto a blackout curtain on a starry night. This visual treatment represents the masterful design to come. It is only in the second scene of the opera that the first full set can be seen. A center mast sits in the middle of the stage, attached to a diagonal yard arm and a round centerpiece called a “Crow’s Nest.” Both in front of and behind the mast, there are three sails made of scrim—transparent, white fabric upon which images are projected. Below you can also see trusses, ropes, and working pulleys that all add to the realism of the set design. Principal singers, chorus members, and supernumerary climbers are not just miming working on a ship; they are physically involved in the running of The Pequod, which is one of the reasons Brill’s set is so effective.
Speaking of physical involvement, Pip flies. When lost at sea, Pip is hoisted up 15-20 feet into the air by a single harness. Pip is pulled across stage by two crew members for two minutes, while a vast ocean is projected on the wall behind.
Yet, as cool as the ship deck set and ocean projections are, they do not even scratch the surface of how grand the set can truly be when it’s fully lit.
Take the tryworks, for example.
The 45-foot wall has a drawbridge that opens onto a platform twice during the show. The first is to showcase the tryworks, where crew members melt whale blubber in the barrels of the ship. It’s a haunting visual as the entire stage is alight with orange and red coloring, fire is projected on the great wall, and crew members sit on rungs (climbable pegs in the wall), staring out into the audience. In front of the tryworks sits Ahab in his cabin – in a moment of reflection. Here the use of space adds to the illusion of the ship and showcases the progression of the story and Ahab’s madness.
Perhaps the most thrilling point of the opera visually is Ahab’s final confrontation with the white whale. Describing this stunning feat of set and projection would spoil the opera’s climax. It’s a moment that has to be seen to experience its full effect.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.