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THINK OF THE LIBERTIES someone might take with a retelling of the novel Moby-Dick. Go on, be egregious. Maybe Captain Ahab would have fully working limbs, or the titular whale would be a different creature.

For this year’s opera adaptation, set for a world premiere in Dallas’ new Winspear Opera House on April 30, composer Jake Heggie had his own wild idea: Change the first sentence. Say again? You’d have to be crazy to remove “Call me Ishmael,” arguably the most famous opening line of any novel.

Thanks to Moby-Dick, the word crazy has followed Heggie for five years. The 48-year-old from San Francisco , who was co-commissioned by five international opera houses to write the opera from scratch, raised eyebrows when he first proposed adapting Melville’s 700-page novel. How would boats work onstage? Could the epic story of maritime revenge and human nature be distilled into three hours of operatic song? Should we expect sailors’ chanteys?

But Heggie — a growing figurehead in 21st-century American opera thanks to the international success of his 2000 production, Dead Man Walking — has quieted the naysayers as much with his talent as with something he has in common with Moby-Dick’s lead character: artful persuasion. “Captain Ahab is a charismatic and inspiring leader,” Heggie says. “Whose voice can sail over everybody else’s on the ship to inspire and excite an entire crew?”

This vision of the “deeply flawed and deeply human” operatic voice he wanted to cast for Ahab was found in Ben Heppner, one of the world’s leading heldentenor singers (he can sustain an hours-long performance of thick, lower-range notes), who agreed to sign on for the role of Ahab before a single note of the opera had been written. Heggie also brought collaborators onboard from Dead Man Walking and his other orchestral and chamber music productions, including librettist Gene Scheer and director Leonard Foglia.

While the production will most likely revel in abstraction and open spaces , along with hints about the “percussion” of the sounds of the sea, Heggie holds to tradition. His modern twists on opera in previous productions — touches of Broadway and jazz — may find themselves anchored in the sweeping, dramatic fire of a classic Wagner opera this time around.

The smiling, soft-voiced Heggie mentions Wagner again and again as he talks about the five years he spent developing Moby-Dick. Wagner’s heroic, tortured archetypes clicked immediately for Heggie when he thought of Captain Ahab’s attempts to understand his lot in the universe. To this aim, he ends the opera with one surviving crew member being rescued from the ocean. When asked for his name, he responds, “Call me Ishmael.”

“In Moby-Dick, there’s a tremendous intimacy and yet [also] a sense of larger forces at work,” Heggie says. “But you don’t have a narrator. You’re seeing the things happen. So, let’s put together events that would inspire an author’s imagination when he sat down to write it.”

+4 More

The Nose
The Metropolitan Opera, New York

Tony Award–winning baritone Paulo Szot leads this oddball Shostakovich opera as a man who wakes one morning with no nose. Through March 25

Seattle Opera

Librettist Gardner McFall tells a story of wartime loss by culling from the loss of her father in Vietnam. May 8 to 22

The Girl of the Golden West
San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera celebrates the 100th anniversary of this Puccini classic. June 9 to July 2

Il Postino*
Los Angeles Opera

The Los Angeles Opera’s 25thanniversary season kicks off with this adaptation of the 1994 film of the same name. Plácido Domingo stars. Sept. 23 to Oct. 16

* World premiere

AW Exclusive! American Airlines is proud to partner with the Dallas Opera and invites AW readers to receive a 10 percent discount on their next Dallas Opera ticket purchase. Visit www.dallasopera.org and use the code AA10 at checkout.  Promotion ends May 23, 2010.