About This Whale . . .

Big, shaven-headed, seemingly weighed down by woe, Eckert's an imposing figure from the start, but not one that you'd instantly peg as a hero of blazing charisma. That's where his performer's cunning cuts in: While Nathan's waking up to his responsibilities, Eckert looks blank, dull, almost stupefied. You're ready to bag: This guy could never write an opera. Then he starts to play, to speak over the music, finally to sing full out. Talk about finding drama in the human voice: Eckert's a master. Gifted with a heldentenor range, he can growl out Ahab's low baritone squall or, as the cabin boy Pip, render a folk song in unearthly countertenor tones. Easy to take, his compositions always have a songlike clarity of line, over an inventive array of harmonies. In moments of high drama, he sometimes pushes his voice unattractively to the edge of the tone, but opera singers giving their all have done that for at least the last 200 years; it practically certifies him as the revitalizer of a great tradition.

Eckert and Cole in Great Whales: all hands on (tape) deck.
photo: Carol Rosegg
Eckert and Cole in Great Whales: all hands on (tape) deck.

Details

And God Created Great Whales
By Rinde Eckert
Dance Theater Workshop
219 West 19th Street
212-924-0077

Because, make no mistake, opera's what we're talking about here—pure drama expressed by way of music. Eckert's means would have seemed a little odd to Rossini, and his techno-impressionist scenery (the subtly evocative set and lighting are by Kevin Adams) might have puzzled Verdi, but the emotional intensity the action produces would have struck them as perfectly natural, just what a composer of dramma per musica ought to be doing, via whatever stylistic tactics could reach his audience most effectively. And reach it Eckert does, not only with the terrible spectacle of memory vanishing, but through a host of motifs that touch provocatively on Melville's main themes: human and natural violence, society and freedom, maleness, otherness, and the disquieting sense that pursuing any ideal means pursuing Destiny, which means pursuing your own death. Rich with ideas, the piece is also too constantly in passionate motion to be called cerebral. It made me feel alive at a time when little in the musical theater does.

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