Sunday Sensational Science

Mixing the science up with the opera

Lab coats on Broadway – aside from mad scientists, when have we ever seen such a thing? Science is seen as useful, practical, often beautiful, but hardly an inspiration for librettos.

But that’s changing.

Darwin’s getting an opera-oratorio. Genetic science inspired a chamber opera. And now, a physicist has a full-blown opera:

There are certain characters in science who stand out for their larger-than-science characteristics: Galileo and his conflicts with Papal authorities; Albert Einstein and his political dabblings and pacifist overtures; Richard Feynman and his safecracking, storytelling antics; Stephen Hawking and his ethereal brain trapped in a frozen body. Biographies, documentaries, films, and even plays have attempted to capture the essence of these giants (see QED, for example, the play starring Alan Alda as Feynman). But to my knowledge, none have had an opera produced in their likeness.

Enter Doctor Atomic, a look at the meaning behind the making of the atomic bomb from the perspective of its paterfamilias J. Robert Oppenheimer and his disparate struggles: with nature to reveal her secrets, with his conscious to ease his guilt. He also struggles with General Leslie R. Groves, the titular military head of the Manhattan Project, and with fellow physicist and future father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.

Fantastic, isn’t it? With this, science has a solid claim to high culture.

Have a listen to the Bhagavad Gita Chorus from Doctor Atomic:

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” floated through Oppenheimer’s mind as he watched the first bomb burst at Trinity Site. It’s tremendous to see that moment captured in music.

Our own incisive regular, Cujo359, has an excellent post up on this opera and Oppenheimer’s life. And, just in case you’ve got an hour on your hands and want the backstory on the opera, I’ve included “Science and the Soul: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Doctor Atomic” for your viewing pleasure:

Celebrating San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Doctor Atomic, this symposium brings together composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars, and UC Berkeley’s Marvin Cohen and Mark Richards to explore J. Robert Oppenheimer’s role in the creation of the first atomic bomb and examines the historical, scientific, and musical background of “Doctor Atomic.”

This isn’t science’s first foray into opera. In 2004, genetic science became the basis for a charming little chamber opera:

A fusion of music, art and science, inspired by contemporary genetic discovery and brought together in the style of a chamber opera, is to have its world premiere at Baltic, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

‘Hidden States’ is the result of a trans-Atlantic collaboration involving music scholars and visual artists from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. It will be performed publicly for the first time at Baltic on Friday 26 November.

The project is the first collaboration on a music theatre project between British composer Jonathan Owen Clark, formerly a lecturer in the International Centre for Music Studies at Newcastle University, and American opera specialist and librettist, David Moody, who is Assistant Director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Conceived as a chamber opera for a small ensemble and baritone performed alongside specially-commissioned synchronised video projections, ‘Hidden States’ draws parallels between alchemy – the forerunner of modern chemistry – and contemporary genetic science.

In a sequence of five monologues, Paracelcus the alchemist – sung by baritone Paul Carey Jones – articulates his hopes and dreams for the creation of a living human being from inanimate matter.

Composer Jonathan Owen Clark said: ‘Collaboration between artists and scientists in the quest to explain some of the myths and mysteries of cutting edge science and its history is not a new idea, but in Hidden States the aim is to provide, in perhaps a new format, an account of certain key concepts in contemporary genomics and bioinformatics. These include sequencing and cloning, and how they fit within the broader themes of cultural, literary and scientific history.

Alas, YouTube has failed me here. But there were plans to turn “Hidden States” into a full opera, and with the success of Doctor Atomic, we might be seeing that happen very soon.

We’ll be celebrating Darwin’s 200th with Tristero’s glorious The Origin, which I’ve mentioned here in the cantina before:

After a year and a half of near-daily composing, I have finally finished The Origin, an opera-oratorio inspired by the life and works of Charles Darwin. It was a challenging, and very enjoyable, project and will premiere February 9, 2009 at the State University of New York, Oswego – that’s 3 days before Darwin’s 200th birthday!

The music is scored for Soprano, Baritone, chorus, orchestra, and the wonderful Eastern European female choir, Kitka. In addition, the brilliant filmmaker Bill Morrison – known for his work with Ridge Theater, Michael Gordon, and others – will be creating films and other visuals for the performance.


The texts used in the Origin are taken entirely from the writings of Charles Darwin – with a brief cameo by his wife, Emma. They were compiled and arranged by poet Catherine Barnett and myself. Most of the words come from The Origin of Species; the so-called “transmutation notebooks;” Darwin’s autobiography; The Voyage of the Beagle; and his letters (you can find a huge selection of Darwin’s writings at this incredible site). My purpose was to celebrate Darwin’s thought and life in music, concentrating specifically on the writing and ideas in The Origin of Species.

So far, there’s only two clips up, but they show that this opera-oratorio is going to make Darwin proud.

Annie’s Memorial

Representations of Chaos

We science-lovers have always known that science has the kind of power, beauty and wonder than can inspire incredible works of art. Now, with science on Broadway, we can show the rest of the world what they’ve been missing.

(Special bonus points to anyone who figured out that this Sunday’s Sensational Science title is a paraphrase from Operatica. Free booze for life for anyone who convinces Operatica to do a concept album around science.)

Sunday Sensational Science