Whale song has had its hooks in the human imagination since 1979, when National Geographic bound a 33 1/3 long-playing, flexible disk into each edition, some 10 million in 25 languages, to be played on turntables all over the world. Songs of the Humpback Whale launched Save the Whales, a movement still going strong, and its underworldly tunes changed our notions of the vast oceans being silent, as well as unleashed the unfathomable mysteries of sea mammals.
How was this musicality discovered? War. Credit the U.S. Navy’s use of underwater microphones meant to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War. The story goes that in 1958, a sonar operator off the coast of Bermuda heard strange sounds in his headset, then saw a whale breach the surface. Ten years later, the underwater recordings were put through a code-breaking device from World War II that put sound into visual form, and that’s when a mathematician noticed the whale emanations repeated.
Weirder still, 50 years of study has revealed the same lengthy arias are sung by all Humpback males; if one makes a change, soon all have incorporated it.
Until 2015, it was only the males that were known to make vocal music. But a recent recording off the coast of Hawaii captured rumbling beats nearly inaudible to humans when both males and females were present. So now, who knows?
Year-round, ever more Humpbacks are being spotted on whale-watching trips off Dana Point. But for 48 years, the city’s Festival of Whales has celebrated the annual California Gray migration down to Baja to make babies, then back up to Alaska. Scientists believe during their ancient journey, the Headlands provide a navigational landmark.
New this year to the festivities is the Lyric Opera of Orange County’s performance Whale Songs & Other Tails From the Opera, with six singers and one pianist collaborating on an evening that will fill the Ocean Institute with an aural menagerie from three realms: Leviathans, Beasts of the Land and The Wing.
“All of the animal sounds you hear will be mimicked by human voices, there are no recorded elements or live animals in the concert,” says Diana Farrell, artistic director of the opera. “The music was specifically chosen highlighting at least one of three elements: Either the plot or story of the [piece of music] was specifically about a whale, sea monster or animal, such as the aria from Moby Dick; or the characters being portrayed are animals, such as our selection from ‘Cunning Little Vixen,’ where the singers are portraying foxes; or if the singers are emulating animal sounds such as bird calls, seals barking, crickets chirping, whale songs or cats meowing.”
Lyric Opera of Orange County was founded by the soprano, who moved here a few years ago from Northeast Ohio, where opera companies abound. She was shocked she’d have to travel to LA or San Diego if she wanted to perform; the full-time working mom just didn’t have that much free time. “But opera is my passion,” she says. “I just love that stage and telling those stories.”
Meanwhile, Farrell was meeting plenty of local singers. “I realized I’m not in a boat alone,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Why wait around for the opportunity? I’m going to be the one to create the opera, not just for myself, but also for other singers.’”
This is the company’s second concert at the Ocean Institute, where they’ll perform under the skeleton of an enormous California Gray. Whale Songs and Other Tails audaciously opens with John Cage’s Litany for the Whale, a 1980 work combining silence with a few notes sung in a pattern we listen for just as we would in a recording of a Humpback whale. The visionary midcentury composer would experiment further with opera near the end of his life. The entire company—HyeJung Shin, pianist; sopranos Erin Baker Pence and Farrell; Maggie Thompson, mezzo soprano; Tyler Thompson, tenor; and baritones Michael O’Halloran and Michael Aaron Segura—will perform the piece.
Though Farrell admits there aren’t that many operas starring a whale, the evening will include “Largo al factotum” (a.k.a. “Figaro Figaro Figaro”) from The Barber of Seville, “which we’ve tied into the theme thanks to the 1946 Disney film, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”
The 15-minute animation tells the story of a charming leviathan who can sing in four voices simultaneously (all of them provided by 1940s Hollywood musical legend Nelson Eddy). A publicity stunt by a mustachioed impresario hell-bent on cashing in claims the whale swallowed an opera singer. A seagull brings Willie the Whale a newspaper clipping alerting his friend to his big break. Willie’s first moment onscreen finds him singing “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Short’nin’ Bread,” which is a bit cringe-worthy for 21st-century ears, but the albatrosses and seagulls clap along with gusto. As the mammal speeds to his audition, we hear “Figaro Figaro Figaro” underwater and above, while Willie faces off against a fat-cat captain and his hapless sailors bent on cannon-blasting him out of the water. It’s a must-see, especially if you’re having trouble imagining a whale starring on the Met stage.
Other creatures the singers manifest include the cricket’s aria from Jonathan Dove’s 2007 Pinocchio, “The Fly Duet” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus In the Underworld and Rossini’s meow-filled “Duetto buffo di due gatti,” featuring a soprano and a tenor. All performers bring a forest of animals to life in Maurice Ravel’s “L’enfant et le sortilege.”
The program is a fitting way to honor the Humpback as well as the Gray during the annual event. Another new venue for celebrating all things cetacean is a free outdoor concert at Baby Beach. Bands will perform on a floating barge, and everyone is free to rush the stage on paddleboards or kayaks.
As always, a parade down Coast Highway kicks off the two weekends of action with an inflated octopus and whale floating high above. Science talks, art expos, antique-boat and classic-car shows, sand sculpting and art-making, a clam chowder cookoff, dinghy races, drone demos, in-harbor cruises, and, best of all, multiple vessels heading out to sea for some up-close encounters with the California Gray whales and their babes.
Whale Songs & Other Tails From the Opera at the Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point; festivalofwhales.com. March 9, 6 p.m. $65. For more information on the Festival of Whales (March 2-3 & 9-10) and its events, visit the website.