Arts & Life


Up next, the inventor and the opera. To Nikola Tesla's long list of accomplishments - physicist, inventor, electrical engineer - we can now add opera star, at least in absentia.

Earlier this week, Violet Fire, a multimedia opera that highlights the life of Tesla, had its American debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, New York. And if you know anything about Tesla, and I know a lot of you do from e-mail, you know that he was regarded by his peers as an inventor ahead of his time.

He invented the electric motor that made our current lifestyle possible. He had ideas about drawing out energy from the Earth and its atmosphere or the idea of making electricity free to everyone. He was friendly with the likes of Mark Twain and George Westinghouse, whom he helped to defeat Thomas Edison in the battle to electrify the United States.

But he was also a tragic figure, making his triumphs and failures the stuff of which great theater is made, and that's what we're going to be talking about in this segment, the opera Violet Fire. Terry O'Reilly is director of the opera, which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this week. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. TERRY O'REILLY (Director, Violet Fire): It's very good to be here.

FLATOW: What makes him such good theater?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, Tesla is a combination of a lot of very important things to what it means to be human. He had a very strong spiritual side. He had a tremendous gift of scientific understanding, and also he was a bit of an artist. And so I think that his life itself is a kind of triangulation of some very powerful things that all of us can feel.

I like to say that there's a little bit of Tesla in all of us, and he is a man not only out of time, but quite exaggerated all of the components of what it means to be human, he had. And so by taking a look at his life, we really feel what it is like for us to pursue our own aspirations.

FLATOW: We're going to play a little segment for you. We have a couple, three segments from the opera. I want to - before we hit the break, I want to play one little segment so you can get a feel. I want our audience to get a feel for what it sounds like, and we'll talk more about it. And this comes at the opening scene at the very beginning, where Tesla is onstage basically singing to himself.

(Soundbite of opera "Violet Fire")

Mr. SCOTT MURPHREE (Actor): (As Nikola Tesla) (Singing) Perhaps I was a little premature. Perhaps too far ahead of time, my tower. The transmission of electrical energy without wires as a means of furthering peace.

FLATOW: And there's Tesla talking about two separate ideas. One, that he's ahead of his time, and he has an idea that he wants to do this to further peace.

Mr. O'REILLY: That's correct. He had this idea that he could transmit electrical energy in a way that would be impossible for it to be contained or put inside of a border - or put inside of a bill, for that matter - so you could...

FLATOW: He made a lot people angry with that.

Mr. O'REILLY: A lot of people were resisting this idea.

FLATOW: Free electricity.

Mr. O'REILLY: Yeah, so we had even the idea of electricity too cheap to meter, but this was electricity that simply was available to everyone. And I think that he did this because he felt that there was a need to free humanity as a group from labor so we could put our minds on higher things.

FLATOW: But he acknowledges a few times in the opera that he thinks he's ahead of his time in life.

Mr. O'REILLY: That is correct, and I think that that's pretty much the way that he is perceived, a man out of time, ahead of his time. Many of the things that he saw - we have to remember this is 1880, the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the technical and scientific explosion where we thought science was going to save us, was going to lead us into the future, and people had very earnest ambitions to improve the world in ways that we might see naïve today.

But Tesla was imagining today's world, a wireless universe, where not only electricity but voice and he foresaw television. Those things would be presented in a way that's sort of like - a little like Google, in a way, where this information is available for free. We're not going to make a profit of it because it's too important, and a profit motive would hold it back.

FLATOW: All right, Terry, I'm going to have to stop here. We're talking with Terry O'Reilly, director of the opera Violet Fire, which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this week. We'll come back with your questions, talk more about Nikola Tesla. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Terry O'Reilly, director of the opera Violet Fire, which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this week, about the life of times of Nikola Tesla.

One of the major components of this beautifully, beautifully produced operetta - the staging is just magnificent. It's bare. The stage is almost bare. It's minimalist, right? Why was that chosen as a way?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, it's a multimedia opera, and we thought that we would identify a projection as design. So we wanted to create surfaces for which these projections could take place. But it - for me it's also like Chinese opera where you have open-space storytelling. You have a bare stage and you bring the performance to it through the body of the performer.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, and it was very effective because it - even though there are a few things going on at once, it's very effective in conveying the mood. The music is terrific also.

Mr. O'REILLY: Yes, the music is really beautiful. Many people in Belgrade, where we had the world premier, were deeply, deeply steeped and knowledgeable about classic opera in ways that we would only be envious. They were really blown away by Jon Gibson's music. They called it so romantic and so beautiful, and they'd never heard anything like it. They came out with very few prejudgments on what it means to make minimalist music. They just thought it was gorgeous.

FLATOW: Let's talk a bit - a little bit what's going - about what's going on in the play. Some interesting highlights. And I'll read from the libretto in which one of - the reporter talks about - and it's mentioned over and over - it says at night and in secret, Nikola Tesla lavishes his love on pigeons. Midnight in the hour of his visits, every midnight for the last five years, he calls them down to where he stands and scatters a seed on the grass. And this is a recurring theme throughout the whole operetta. What is the meaning of the pigeons in this operetta?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, it's actually true. It's factual.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. O'REILLY: Tesla was an immigrant. He came, as many people did, to the United States for opportunity and to find a way to have his ideas be born fully. And at the end of his life, he had not had an investor for more than 20 years. He was, let's say, in his 70s. He lived to be 93, by the way. He was -could often be found in Bryant Park here in New York City feeding pigeons in the park, really unknown. This would be like, I don't know, someone like David Bowie sitting in the park and nobody knows who he is even though he played all this great music.

FLATOW: And he was very famous at that time.

Mr. O'REILLY: Incredibly famous. At his time, he was probably the most famous scientist in the world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's play a little bit more from scene two. This is an interesting one, and I know this is a piece that you liked in particular and wanted to select it. And this is about - this is Tesla and the white dove. Who's playing the white dove?

Mr. O'REILLY: This is Mirijana Jovanovic. She's from Serbia, and she is in full bloom as a soprano voice. You will hear it. We love it.

FLATOW: And Tesla's played by?

Mr. O'REILLY: This - Tesla's played by Scott Murphree.

FLATOW: A very, very beautiful part, a duet here.

(Soundbite of opera "Violet Fire")

Mr. MURPHREE (As Nikola Tesla) and Ms. MIRJANA JOVANOVIC (Opera Singer) (As the White Dove): (Singing) The sun kneels down. The day is spent. Blushing below, she must begin again. The sun kneels down. The day is spent. Blushing below, she must begin again. There is no ring to (unintelligible). The wings of spirit (unintelligible) to lift this body up by (unintelligible).

FLATOW: That's just a little bit from that duet, very beautiful music. Was there thought in - great thought in putting how - what kind of music was needed here?

Mr. O'REILLY: Yes, exactly. This is the moment of absolute full exultation where Tesla has - it would be - I would compare it to Einstein's moment on the lake when he conceived of the theory of relativity.

This amazing moment is in the park in Budapest where he looks out over the bridge and he sees the sun and he imagines for a moment the sun revolving around the Earth. And he conceives of the rotating and magnetic electric field and has what we could only call a suite of ideas that formulated alternating currents and led to radio, as a matter of fact. So this is the moment when Tesla has only a blindingly bright future ahead of himself and an ambition to help humanity, I would say.

FLATOW: Yeah. Of course there does come the downturn in his life, and we have a little bit about that with the - being sung by Catherine, as Catherine being played by...

Mr. O'REILLY: This is Dragana Stankovic.

FLATOW: Thank you. Let's hear a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of opera "Violet Fire")

Ms. DRAGANA STANKOVIC (Opera Singer): (As Catherine) Something's not right. (Unintelligible) Prometheus, you brought us fire, but your fire isn't right. Burned into the skin, goes into the brain. All your great inventions, all your great intentions will ruin us, will ruin us.

FLATOW: All your great inventions, all your great intentions will ruin us. What has turned wrong?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, this is really the moment in the opera where we get to really the crux of Tesla's difficulty. I think it is something that our contemporaries, people living today working on the Manhattan Project very hard with an idea that they would stop war by creating weapons that were unbelievably terrible and would not be used, and if they were, would annihilate. These people I think had very, very deep second thoughts about their - use of their energies for something that would then turn in a way that they could not control.

Tesla was probably the - a model in a lot of ways for a solo inventor who wanted to be completely in control of how his ideas were functioning well. And his arch rival, Edison, was much more in the realm of using his inventions in a way that were - well, I'm sort of veering off onto...

FLATOW: That's okay.

Mr. O'REILLY: Edison, which I did not intend to do.

FLATOW: But he was a very part of Tesla's life, Edison.

Mr. O'REILLY: Actually we leave Edison a little bit out of the opera. There's a question that the reporter says. He says why is Edison so famous...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. O'REILLY: ...when he's here scattering seeds on the ground. After all, Tesla was the inventor of alternating currents. And many people say this device that we're talking on, radio, was invented by Tesla, at least Marconi used 17 of his patents to demonstrate radio.

So Tesla was largely the inventor of very many things for which he never really profited and he lost the control of. And I think this is the place that is really so poignant for Tesla is that he is back in the park feeding the pigeons.

And he has reached a point where he saw maybe that his inventions, things that he could see, things that he could imagine, maybe should not actually be released into the world.

FLATOW: So what's the future of Violet Fire now if - in a very short run here in Brooklyn.

Mr. O'REILLY: Well this is the U.S. premier. We had the world premier in Belgrade. We're looking for a European tour to go back to Europe. There's interest in Australia as well. And we have hopes of going to Chicago with the Lyric Opera. And so this would be the - we'll be putting it to bed, so to speak, for about six to eight months and taking it out on tour.

FLATOW: Well that's great, because I recommend it highly to anybody. Watch for it coming to your towns. It's just a beautiful production. Thank you.

Mr. O'REILLY: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you, Terry O'Reilly, director of Violet Fire, which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this week.

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