An Opera Concerning NikolaTesla
"He was both ahead of his time... and out of his time,"
Philadelphia Inquirer - 13 February 2004
Contemplate the possibility: Thomas Edison - the opera.
Ka-thup. The idea is dead on arrival. Inventing lightbulbs, it seems,
just isn't poetic enough to sing about.
Yet mention Edison's lesser-known rival and contemporary, the enigmatic,
eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, and music becomes imaginable. Enough to
fill an opera? The answer comes with the world premiere of Violet Fire,
a high-tech, nonlinear music-theater piece that will debut Friday and
Saturday [13 and 14 February] at Temple University's Tomlinson Theater.
The ingredients are a light-year or two away from, say, the Opera
Company of Philadelphia. Electrical coils worthy of a Frankenstein
laboratory stand on each side of the stage. Singers, who are Temple
students, are wired with microphones - not to amplify their voices, but
to pick up waves of body energy that are projected onto video screens
onstage. The orchestra is Philadelphia's ever-progressive Relâche
ensemble, its jazzlike percussion section assuring that the music will
have the driving rhythm that matches the onstage electric currents.
How all of this - plus choreography - fits together is up to stage
director Terry O'Reilly from New York's cutting-edge Mabou Mines theater
company. He's taking philosophical cues from Tesla's world: "Scientists
create situations in which nature reveals itself; I try to create
situations where the text will reveal itself."
Revealing Tesla can never be easy, even with composer Jon Gibson (a
longtime collaborator of Philip Glass), five state-of-the-art
computerized projectors with visuals constructed by Temple new-media
assistant professor Sarah Drury in conjunction with media designer Jen
Simmons, plus the words of the project's mastermind, librettist Miriam
The Croatian - born Tesla, who lived from 1856 to 1943 and held more than
700 patents, is best known for establishing alternating electrical
currents (AC) over direct current (DC), as well as for harnessing
Niagara Falls for its electricity-generating potential. Unlike many
turn-of-the-century inventors, however, Tesla didn't practice an
exhaustive process of elimination until the bulb, figuratively speaking,
lit. He envisioned what he wanted to create.
"In my mind," he once wrote, "I change the construction, make
improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a
sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen ... It is
immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my
shop. The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked."
Though ridden with so many phobias he supposedly had no sex life, Tesla
maintained a godlike aura. He claimed to zap himself with 100,000 volts
(while wearing cork shoes), adding that it was conducive to good health.
Later years, however, were littered with ambitious failures, or at least
projects that didn't come to fruition due to faithless funders such as
J. P. Morgan.
Tesla once hobnobbed with the highest of New York society at Delmonico's
restaurant, but he died an eccentric curiosity at the New Yorker Hotel,
supported by a small stipend from a company that probably wouldn't have
continued existing without him: Westinghouse Electric.
"A story he told a reporter late in his life was about a pigeon that
flew to his window, and he had this vision. He saw light, a greater
light than he ever saw in his laboratory," librettist Seidel says. "Had
this guy lived in the Middle Ages, he would've been a mystic. I remember
thinking, 'This has to be an opera.' Opera goes beyond the real."
That was 10 years ago. The pigeon vision came to play such a role in
Seidel's thinking that, at one point, the working title for the opera
was The White Dove. Composer Gibson, who joined the project in 1997,
argued against it. "I said, 'Miriam, they're pigeons.' "
The new title, Violet Fire, has numerous connections with the Tesla
legend. In some of his more radical experiments, he was known to create
his own aurora borealis. In his declining years, Tesla became a
science-fiction cult figure whose predictions ran in magazines such as
Seidel minimized the more murky speculations about what actually
happened to his so-called laserlike "death beam" that the Soviet Union
claimed to have developed during the Cold War. Some of Tesla's intricate
notebooks went missing after his death and still haven't been located.
It's possible that he was really onto something. "He was both ahead of
his time... and out of his time," O'Reilly says.
The form for Violet Fire harks back to the Philip Glass operas of the
1980s, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, free-floating portrayals that don't
attempt psychological portrayal but are a series of "docu-meditations"
from key points in lives of remarkable men.
The idea met with much encouragement from modern-music circles, but not
offers of money. The current production's remarkably lean $30,000 budget
came together through various private and public-agency grants, but most
notably a Provost's Commission for the Arts grant at Temple - $5,000
encouraging collaboration among the university's various academic
Besides using student singers and dancers, the grant also opened the
door to improvements that might not otherwise have happened. John
Douglas, associate professor of voice and opera, worked with Gibson
extensively on the vocal writing, for example. "I thought the opera was
finished," Gibson says. "I thought it was finished two or three times.
But John helped me a lot on how to properly notate for the voice."
Because of the long gestation, the production missed the distinction of
being the first major opera about Tesla. Exactly a year ago, the Ten
Days on the Island festival in the Australian state of Tasmania
premiered Tesla: lightning in his hand, a more conventional work
featuring singing versions of Edison and George Westinghouse.
With any luck, the Seidel-Gibson Tesla will be better traveled. The
opera's particular brand of high technology allows not only fantastical
visuals but also portability. The weekend's two performances - plus
tonight's dress rehearsal, which is open to walk-up ticket buyers - will
be attended by any number of presenters interested in the opera's
The one question that's most likely to be asked by the audience,
however, doesn't involve Tesla, the inventions or the production, but
one of the dancers, Milsy Davis. Could it be that she's pregnant, yet
dancing anyway? Yes.
"I'm just so passionate about the piece," says the Collegeville-based
Temple graduate, who is only 10 weeks away from giving birth. "I feel
better after rehearsals than before." So now you know.