Of the many classic American novels, few seem more suited to the opera stage than Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick."
Its starkly drawn characters like Captain Ahab inhabit a story in which the seagoing singular pursuit of a white whale operates on many levels.
That makes for great raw material for an opera a fact that is not lost on "Moby-Dick" opera composer Jake Heggie and tenor Jay Hunter Morris.
All opera composers have their own ways of bonding with material that will form an opera. With "Moby-Dick," Heggie was charged with working with extremely well-known material, something he considers ubiquitous.
Yet unlike other novels, where readers have an intimate knowledge of all the details, "Moby-Dick" exists in the public psyche as an iconic work, and not one many have read closely, said Heggie.
"There is much awareness in popular culture about "Moby-Dick," and that's a good thing because that means we didn't have to explain the story immediately, but it is also vague enough that we could fill in details and not throw people off."
Heggie's two-act adaptation of the book comes with a libretto written by Gene Scheer. The opera premiered in Dallas two years ago and has garnered glowing reviews ever since. It gets its San Francisco Opera premiere on Wednesday, with Morris singing the Ahab role.
Morris will be joined by tenor Stephen Costello, who will sing Ishmael, and baritone Morgan Smith in the role of Starbuck, in a Leonard Foglia production. Patrick Summers conducts.
In 2005 Heggie was approached with a commission to write the opera by a consortium of opera companies including the San Francisco Opera, the Dallas Opera and three others. For Heggie it will be a homecoming. He got his big break when then-San Francisco general director Lotfi Mansouri took a shine to his work and commissioned his first opera, the highly regarded "Dead Man Walking," in 2000.
At the time, Heggie had not read "Moby-Dick," although he had experienced the tale by way of John Huston's 1956 film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab.
"I encountered it when I was obsessed with movies as a teen growing up in Ohio," he said. "I watched every movie I could, and even collected silent movies that I watched on my own projector ... and I watched the films over and over."
Although that movie is considered a definitive film adaptation, not many have seen it, and that proved a boon to Heggie.
"If you were going to do 'Gone With Wind' or 'Wizard of Oz,' it would be problematic because those films are so indelible; 'Moby-Dick' does not have that," he said.
What "Moby-Dick" does have are bold characters whose stories play out on a ship against the backdrop of an immense sea.
"It's an operatic book because it deals with very real people in intimate surroundings that are clearly defined," he said. "And these surroundings are ones where larger forces are at work and they are forces beyond the characters' control."
No musical treatment of "Moby-Dick" is worthy of success unless it captures the scope and charm of the Pequod's whale-obsessed captain, the peg-legged Ahab, who seeks revenge on the whale who tore off his leg.
When conceiving of the music, Heggie grew fond of the idea of writing the Ahab role as one suited to a big lyric tenor much like one who could sing Lohengrin or Peter Grimes.
"The role sits right in that sort of repertoire, and it's a role that is heroic and tragic at the same time," Heggie said. "It's a pretty brutal role. I didn't avoid anything; I pulled out all the stops when writing it."
Originally, the Ahab role was to be sung by Ben Heppner for the opera's San Francisco run, but Heppner dropped out of the San Diego run earlier this year due to illness. The charge then fell to the Texas-born Morris, who has been lighting up the opera stage lately with noteworthy and career-defining performances of Siegfried in San Francisco and the Metropolitan Opera.
Like Heggie, Morris has strong ties to the San Francisco Opera. He premiered roles in "Dead Man Walking" and "Doctor Atomic" there. One of his champions is frequent San Francisco Opera director Francesca Zambello, who first encountered Morris in a 2001 production of Janacek's "Jenufa."
"Jay is a fine actor. He throws himself into things like a wild animal," said Zambello. "He's well- suited for this role since he's not afraid of powerful people and deep characters."
Filling the big shoes of Ahab did not intimidate Morris. "For me, Ahab is that dream role. Every tenor in the world wants to sing this role," he said.
To prepare, Hunter read the novel twice. When he was finished he was convinced the biggest challenge would be infusing the role with enough charisma while safeguarding the rage that seethes within the character.
Morris likens the Ahab character to a televangelist.
"Charisma is important, because here's a guy that will lead men willingly to their deaths and these are not just any men, they're scoundrels," he said.
"For Ahab to lead his men and tell them they're not doing this for cash or pleasure to get them to follow him? That means he has to embody the charisma of a larger-than-life, powerful man," he said.
Morris, who grew up singing in a Baptist choir and also sang and played guitar in several garage rock bands as a teen, welcomes the physical challenges of the role where one leg is constrained to allow the employment of a wooden peg-leg.
"It's hard walking around with a peg-leg, as it forces my back and shoulders to press down on my knees that's not easy," Morris said. "But it's also a great asset to have a prop like that because it's so iconic."
Composer Heggie agrees, and feels this also forces Morris to explore new dramatic territory.
"The leg gives an actor like Jay something to work with," Heggie said. "The discomfort and awkwardness of it serves to remind you that you're a compromised character."
San Francisco Opera
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Oct. 18 and 30; 8 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 23, 26 and Nov. 2; 2 p.m. Oct. 21.
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Information: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com