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Science, Art and Human Universals

We (eight Americans and seven Moroccans, along with a French documentarian and a Japanese funder) pulled off a performance of Locust: The Opera in Agadir, Morocco, at the 13th International Congress of Orthopterology (the scientists who study crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and, of course, locusts). Everything went just as expected, meaning that almost nothing went as planned. My years of international ecological research paid off in terms of anticipating surprises and embracing adaptation. I told everyone that every phase of the production needed a Plan B (at least) because so much would be outside our control.

There was: a major blizzard in Denver; sickness among the ranks; airport security questioning whether transmitting microphones (for the singers) could enter the country and whether a voice recorder was actually a drone controller; a talented and hardworking Moroccan chamber orchestra with no experience in accompanying opera singers; a sardine-packed drive from Rabat to Agadir; a 24-hour search for a ladder and a computer projector; a small incident in which we put a projection screen in front of the king’s portrait (oops!); barely 6 hours for the entire staging to be assembled; an anxious wait for two of the musicians to make a 650-mile roundtrip to fulfill military obligations the day of the opera; an awkward realization that the metaphor of a “bottleneck” in the libretto was culturally constrained—and, in the end, it all came together!

But did our audience of 160 scientists appreciate the performance? We conducted a post-performance survey and the results were quite remarkable. The orthopterists (one-third female) came from every inhabited continent, with about 60% from Africa and Europe. What’s really exciting is that half of the audience had never attended an opera—and on a scale of 1-10, they rated Locust as engaging and pleasurable (8.8), better than expected (8.8), and thought-provoking (9.0). The stereotype of the cold-hearted scientist was further belied by our finding that most of the respondents engaged in art-making, with creative writing, painting, and music being common (the most popular genre being Classical, followed by Rock and Jazz).

Two of the universal features of human culture are storytelling and music. And so, perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised that opera—arguably the grandest integration of story and song—would resonate with an international audience of scientists. After all, natural history is the story of life on Earth and orthopterans are some of the finest, six-legged singers.

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