Opera should be impossible. Obviously it isn’t, but the artistic forces involved from so many people at the same time make it perhaps the most challenging and least individual of art forms. The impossibility of such an artistic quest gives the concept of opera ideological parallels to a novel like Melville’s Moby-Dick. Music and theater artists have frequently picked up on this peculiar relationship to produce such varied work as Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick from 1999 to Jake Heggie’s recent outright operatic treatment of the novel that premiered in Dallas in 2010 and will be seen next month in San Diego before arriving in San Francisco this fall. The commonalities also served as the inspiration for Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales a performance art piece that isn’t exactly opera, but takes up the topic of the creation of an opera based on Moby-Dick as its subject. The work originally premiered in 2000 to much acclaim and various performances over the following three years. More recently, Eckert, along with his collaborators, costar Nora Cole and director David Schweizer, developed a technologically retooled new version of the show that opened up the spring season at REDCAT on Wednesday for five performances before moving onto New York later this year.
Eckert directly taps into the concept of the struggle of artistic production and its parallels both with the struggle of every day life and the struggles for greater knowledge and the unknown in Moby-Dick. And God Created Great Whales tells the story of Nathan, played by Eckert, a composer working on an operatic version of Melville’s novel. Nathan has been diagnosed with a degenerative cognitive disorder and is losing his memory, making his task that much more difficult. He’s created an elaborate system using several tape recorders, including one that is strapped to his chest, to remind and orient himself to his project and work on a repeated daily basis. He’s also joined by Cole, who portrays an imagined version of a famous opera singer Nathan has previously befriended during his work as a piano tuner. She advises and motivates Nathan and after each repeated start with the tape recorder, she joins him in re-enactments of various scenes from his opera. Slowly but surely, things deteriorate for Nathan until he too must face the inevitable sway of forces greater than himself.
Nora Cole gives a wonderful performance as the imaginary friend with a lovely voices and a big stage presence. But at the heart of it, this is Eckert’s show. He has composed all of the accompanying music, much of it incorporating samples of whale sounds, and sings and moves through most of the evening. He plays and tunes a dilapidated piano strung up to the rafters above with thick rope. He’s both touching and funny at times in a script filled with wry, and sometimes bitter humor. Still the last decade alters one’s perspective on the show. The notion of saving memory on a tape recorder comes off as even more archaic in a post Momento, post i-whatever world which makes Nathan seem decrepit and weak even before the scope of his deterioration is elaborated upon. The operatic segments can also be rather genteel and softball in their lampooning of operatic conventions. The laughs here are warm, but rarely all that dark or biting. Nathan’s decline is more marked by apathy than psychic pain, which may be more naturalistic, but doesn’t always make for the best drama. Granted it’s smarter than drivel like Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, but I often felt like I was missing something in the fleshing out of Eckert’s concept. The show continues through Sunday at REDCAT, downtown’s still best kept open secret.