How to Write an Opera (Hint: Math Helps!)
The challenge of scientific literacy is communicating knowledge in forms that are evocative, memorable and intelligent. Stories engage people—and this approach drove a collaborative venture to convey an ecological epic. Locust: The Opera is an environmental murder mystery in which solving the century-old extinction of an iconic species provides lessons for the modern world. The ghost of the locust haunts a scientist until he can figure out how a creature that once blackened the skies of the West vanished (https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/scene/arts/article_01ca9e1b-5f24-57c5-a750-006c1d0c80c6.html).
I was the librettist (opera lyrics are a libretto), and I based the words on my book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. My goal was to capture the ecological richness and moral complexity (the locust caused terrible suffering, but its loss was an environmental tragedy), while telling a good story.
With those objectives in mind, I condensed my book of 100,000 words by more than 98%. Although my collaborators teased me about my strategy, I took a scientific approach. My research revealed that opera unfolds at 30+5 words/minute (including phrases repeated for dramatic emphasis). If Locust was to be 45 minutes (an ideal length for most audiences), that meant 1,350 words. I allocated 8 minutes to the first scene, which had two interactions. So, the opening dialogue of the Scientist and Locust was given 4 minutes or exactly 120 words (no cheating!):
SCIENTIST: So many devastating grasshoppers. So many despairing ranchers. Too much to drink last night… Who—what—are you?
LOCUST: They call me Melanoplus spretus.
The Rocky Mountain locust?
Extinct for a century, how have you returned?
Trillions of my kind once spread across the land in storm clouds of life. Some were blown into the mountains and frozen within glaciers. Now our tombs are melting, releasing us from the ice.
B-b-but they are dead.
Bodily, yes. Howbeit, the spirit of our kind is freed to wander the earth.
A ghost?! What do you want?
My swarms eclipsed the sun and outweighed the bison.
What is your question?
How did we vanish? Who was our killer? Tell me!
As important as the libretto is to storytelling, opera succeeds through the capacity of music to crystallize and intensify the meaning of words. To get a sense of this synergy, check out the opening scene (the audience uses tissue paper to create the sound of an arriving swarm): https://youtu.be/CBoyvKnxCdk.