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MOBY DICK—Synopsis

(In order of vocal appearance)

ISHMAEL, a young man (tenor)
CAPTAIN PELEG, co-owner of the Pequod (baritone)
ELIJAH, a “Prophet” (bass-baritone)
STARBUCK, First-Mate of the Pequod (baritone)
AUNT CHARITY, Peleg’s sister (mezzo-soprano)
MARY STARBUCK, Starbuck’s wife (soprano)
STUBB, Second-Mate (baritone)
FLASK, Third-Mate (baritone)
PIP, cabin boy (soprano)
HAB, Captain of the Pequod (bass-baritone)
YANKEE SAILOR (baritone)
TASHTEGO, harpooner (baritone)
DAGOO, harpooner (baritone)
QUEEQUEG, harpooner (bass-baritone)
OLD SAILOR (baritone)
FLEECE, the ship’s cook (tenor)
PERTH, blacksmith (baritone)
various Sailors, Wives, Townspeople, etc.

Act One, Scene 1—Nantucket harbor, a raw Christmas Eve in the 1840s. Aboard the Pequod, a three-masted ship, preparations are being made for sailing; old sails mended and new sails brought on board along with bolts of canvas and coils of rigging. On shore a steady stream of tradesmen and suppliers are bringing provisions to the ship—everything that’s needed for three year’s housekeeping at sea. Captain Peleg, co-owner of the ship, is supervising the activity as he leans over the side-rail, pipe in hand. Below, a young man with a carpetbag appears and stands looking at the ship with admiration. He introduces himself as Ishmael to Peleg and indicates his desire to sign on. After a few questions Peleg invites him aboard. Before he can climb aboard to sign the papers he is stopped by Elijah who warns him about Captain Ahab. Thinking he’s being confronted by an old drunk, Ishmael tosses Elijah some coins and boards the ship. As townspeople sing “God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen, Elijah curses Ishmael. An orchestral interlude leads to…

Act One Scene 2—The quarterdeck of the Pequod with the town of Nantucket in the background; a cold, raw Christmas Day; it is snowing. The ship is ready to sail. Starbuck waves good-bye to the last of the riggers and looks with satisfaction at his checklist. Captain Peleg, acting as port captain, strides about the deck. As the crew prepares to sail they notice Aunt Charity, Mary Starbuck and two other wives coming aboard. They come aboard. Aunt Charity has gifts for various crewmen and she and Peleg engages in banter while Starbuck and his wife sing a tender farewell duet. As the wind picks up Peleg ushers the women from the ship. As the sailors sing a lusty chantey the women pray for the safety of the men. An orchestral interlude leads to…

Act One, Scene 3—At sea several days later; it is night and Ishmael can be seen in the crowsnest while a steersman is at the tiller. Ishmael sings a revery to the starry night and its wondrous beauty and the mystery of the sea. Starbuck, Stubb abd Flask enter from below and commence to complain about the poor living conditions imposed by Ahab. Ahab overhears them and sends the cabin boy, Pip, to tell them to go to bead. After they leave, Ishmael, having come down from the rigging, meditates on Ahab’s character and motives. An orchestral interlude leads to…

Act One, Scene 4—The deck of the Pequod the next day. A storm is about to break, and the ship is tossing violently. Amid thunder and shrieking winds the crew is working frantically to bring in the sails and to batten down the hatches. Suddenly, in a blinding flash of lightening Captain Ahab appears on the quarterdeck. He gathers the crew together and, through a series of questions about whaling, leads to a description of Moby Dick, the white whale. He nails a twenty dollar gold piece to the mast, announcing that it will go to the man who first spots Moby Dick. Starbuck challenges Ahab’s obsession with wreaking vengeance on the whale that bit Ahab’s leg off. At this moment the ship is struck by St. Elmo’s Fire which Ahab claims as a divine sign. He rouses the crew into a frenzy of blood-lust and they vow to kill the beast.

Act Two, Scene 1—A year and a half later. It is mid-summer and the Pequod sails in the Japanese Sea. The sky is cloudless, the horizon floats; and the sun’s unrelieved radiance imparts a strange and wearisome torpor to the crew. Half naked they lie about in lethargy as Ahab, seated in the bow of a hoisted whale boat, is trying with the aid of a quadrant to determine the ship’s position. He expresses his frustration at not having found Moby Dick yet and, in anger, throws the quadrant to the deck and stomps it to pieces in front of the amazed crew. After he goes below, the crew become playful. They ask Pip to makes some music with his tambourine while they dance and horse around. Some of the men express their homesickness. A fight breaks out but it is broken up by the lookout crying “Thar she blows!” Ahab returns and they quickly assemble the whale boat crews to go after the whales. Pip is order to stay behind after Stubb reminds the captain that he was a nuisance that lost them a whale the last time out. Left alone Pip’s incipient madness asserts itself and, in a desperate prayer, he leaps overboard. An orchestral interlude leads to…

Act Two, Scene 2—By torchlight the crew is slaughtering the whale that Stubb has killed. Crewmen suspended by ropes are cutting strips of blubber from the carcass lashed to the side of the ship, while others, armed with long spikes, are killing sharks feeding noisily on the carcass. The silhouettes of the three harpooners are seen pitching masses of blubber into two large smoking try-pots; the gracefully curved flukes of the whale can be seen. Pip is lying in the bulwarks with his back turned. Stubb, slightly drunk, is sitting at a table waiting for his supper, a special honor for the one who slays the whale. He impatiently calls for Fleece, the ship’s cook, who enters bearing a whale steak. Sarcastically he orders Fleece to “preach” to the sharks to stop making so much noise. Fleece obliges with a satirical “sermon”. And leaves. At this point Stubb begins to harass Pip. The other mates discourage this, reminding Stubb that Pip, after being rescued from the sea, has apparently gone completely mad, claiming that, while he was in the sea, he saw God’s foot working a gigantic foottreadle. Pip has a brief mad scene during which Ahab enters. Observing the boy’s behavior, he is oddly touched and decides that henceforth Pip should stay in the captain’s cabin. Ahab approaches the blacksmith Perth and tells him of a disturbing dream. Perth reassures him that he need only fear the “judgement of men and the dangling rope…” Ahab gives Perth a broken harpoon point to mend and then asks the harpooners for a drop of blood to “christen” it. As they do Ahab says a mock benediction which shocks the mates. Ishmael is especially amazed and comments on the sense that life is one cruel joke. An orchestral interlude leads to…

Act Two, Scene 3—Late afternoon, weeks later, just before sundown. Three levels of action can be seen simultaneously: Starbuck alone on deck; Ahab in his cabin; and, in the lowermost level, the black members of the crew are gathered around Queequeg, who is dying. There can be heard the muted drumming from this quarter punctuated by an occasional clash of Pip’s tambourine. Starbuck is wrestling with a moral dilemma: he believes the captain is leading them into catastrophe but cannot bring himself to commit mutiny to stop it. In his cabin Ahab muses on the direction his life has taken, but reaffirms his commitment to revenge on the whale. He knows he’s probably mad but doesn’t care. Starbuck enters and tells him that the oil is leaking out of the hold. He suggests putting in at Yokohama for repairs but Ahab scorns Starbuck’s concerns and orders him out of the cabin. Deeply insulted, Starbuck leaves. Ahab leaves the cabin and goes below where he spies on the “funeral” scene through a peephole. Meanwhile, Starbuck re-enters Ahab’s cabin and removes a rifle from the wall. When he hears Ahab returning he hides in the shadows. Ahab sits at his desk not knowing Starbuck is behind him pointing the rifle at his head. As he sinks forward, falling asleep on the desk, Starbuck hesitates, then replaces the gun and leaves,in despair. An orchestral interlude leads to…


As the curtain rises, the entire crew is on deck looking out to sea. It is near the end of the day. Ahab, with telescope in hand, paces the deck; behind him, following every step, is Pip. Ahab orders Pip below. He, Starbuck, and Ishmael ponder their individual fates. Suddenly, a whale is sighted and it’s Moby Dick. The crew scrambles into the whale boats and they are lowered, Ahab egging the crew on. As they approach the whale the crew is stunned at the enormity of it. When they attempt to harpoon the whale their boats are overturned. The lights dim. When the lights come up again the men are being hauled aboard the Pequod. As they sight the whale again and prepare to launch the remaining whale boat, Starbuck makes one last, desperate effort to persuade the captain to give up the hunt. For one brief moment, Ahab waivers, but then recovers himself and orders the boats off. As they pursue the whale they see it turn and ram the ship, which sinks. The whale turns back to the boat and as Ahab leaps onto its back with the harpoon the lights dim again as the boat is overturned. After a moment, a single ray of light falls on Ishmael swimming in the sea. He looks around and exclaims: “My God! Everyone’s gone! I, alone, live!” A brief, calming orchestral postlude concludes the opera.

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