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And God Created Great Whales

Rinde Eckert's richly conceived work, about a composer suffering memory loss, is a stunning piece of music-theater.

By New York City
Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole in
And God Created Great Whales
(© Caleb Wertenbaker)
Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole in
And God Created Great Whales
(© Caleb Wertenbaker)
The Culture Project had one of its earliest successes with Rinde Eckert's richly conceived 2000 work, And God Created Great Whales. Now, to celebrate its return to its former home at 45 Bleecker, the company has remounted the OBIE Award-winning two-hander, which remains a stunning piece of music-theater.

The show, directed by David Schweizer, centers on Nathan (played by Eckert), a composer suffering from a degenerative illness that is causing him to lose his memory. The unfortunate condition has afflicted him during the creation of what he plans as his grand opus, an opera adaptation of Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick.

Nathan has left himself tape-recorded instructions and visual aids to help jar his memory from day to day so that he can continue his work. He also receives assistance from Olivia (Nora Cole), his muse. In his instructions to himself, he readily acknowledges that she is a product of his imagination, but also says that he should listen to "anything she has to say about music, or art, or the dark night of the soul, or whatever."

There is a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek mocking of operatic conventions within Eckert's piece, as Nathan and Olivia take on the roles of Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ahab, and others from Melville's novel. It also soon becomes clear that Nathan's Moby-Dick score draws from an eclectic array of musical influences that include not only a more traditional opera sound, but also sea shanties, gospel, liturgical music, and more.

Among the vocal highlights is a sermon aria from the character of Father Mapple, which Eckert delivers with passion. As a singer, Eckert is able to traverse an impressive range, seeming equally comfortable with a richly textured baritone and a clarion falsetto.

Cole's gorgeous soprano is also shown off nicely within the piece, most notably when her character tries to convince Nathan that he should add in a cameo appearance by a mysterious woman who comes to Ahab in his dreams to deliver both "a promise and a warning."

Eckert plays parts of the score live on the piano, but the production also makes extensive use of pre-recorded excerpts. Going back and forth between the two can be somewhat jarring to the ear, but it does allow the audience to experience a richer orchestration for the music.

While there are no real surprises in regards to Nathan's fate at the end of the 80-minute performance, the piece has a strong arc. Its themes of creation and the pursuit of the unattainable are emotionally resonant and dramatically satisfying.


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