Stargazing At The Opera The Hayden Planetarium in New York takes opera to the moon with a new production of Il Mondo Della Luna. Diane Paulus and Philip Bussmann talk about merging cosmos footage with music, how science can enhance the arts and the future of technology and theater.
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Stargazing At The Opera

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Stargazing At The Opera

Stargazing At The Opera

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, when you think about an opera, you probably don't think about optical illusions that make you feel like you're floating over the lunar surface, or a scene of psychedelic space travel or people singing arias while being wheeled around on ladders.

Yeah, but that combination is a key attraction for a revamped version of an old opera called "Il Mondo Della Luna," or "The World on the Moon," put on by the Gotham Chamber Orchestra in New York's Hayden Planetarium, an opera on stage in a planetarium to great effect. A lot of fun. I saw it this week.

And here to talk about Haydn at Hayden are Diane Paulus, she is the artistic director for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; and Philip Bussmann is a video and production designer for "Il Mondo Della Luna." He joins us today from Frankfurt, Germany. Welcome to the program.

Ms.�DIANE PAULUS (Artistic Director, American Repertory Theater): Hi, great to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Mr.�PHILIP BUSSMANN (Video and Production Designer): Hello, hi.

FLATOW: Whose idea was this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms.�PAULUS: Goodness, you know, Neal Goran, who is the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, came to me several years and said: I've got this opera, this Haydn opera, "Il Mondo Della Luna." You know, I'm thinking you might be right for it, and as always happens in, you know, the creative world, the space that the Gotham Chamber Opera usually uses is Henry Street Settlement. They have an opera house down there on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It wasn't available, so in kind of joking passing one day, he said to me: Wouldn't it be funny if we would do it in a planetarium? You know, almost like a joke. And I heard that idea, and I said, Neal, now you've planted that seed, there's no going back.

So the two of us went to see "Cosmic Collisions," which was the space show that was being shown at the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, and when it was over, he turned to me and said, well, it was a great idea. It will never work. And I said, oh no, it's going to work.

And that began a two-year process of testing and bringing singers into that space and plotting and working with the museum to make this production possible.

FLATOW: Yeah, and you use all the tricks that a planetarium can give you, like the special space scenery. It looks like you're on the moon. People are you're seeing all that special video, the graphics. It's just a gorgeous effect.

Ms.�PAULUS: Absolutely. Well, you know, the beauty of this marriage of art and science is that the story of this opera is about a father figure who's overly protective of his two daughters and who won't let them marry the men they want to marry. So what do they do? The kids all plot to trick him into making him think he's on the moon. And on the moon the world is topsy-turvy, and they can get married, and they get around his overprotective ways by this trick.

So this idea that we could be in a planetarium and actually use the footage that the planetarium has had in its archive over the years and that was the extraordinary piece of the collaboration, was the museum saying, well, we've got "Journey to the Stars," and we've got "Cosmic Collisions," and, oh yeah, there's that laser rock show from Friday nights. You might be interested in that too.

And I sort of said, oh my gosh, let me see it all. And of course, bringing on board Philip, my video designer, and his ingenious editing of all that incredible footage from the star shows into a specialized backdrop for this opera, you know, scored and set to the Haydn music, is just, you know, really an amazing collaboration.

FLATOW: Philip, tell me how you chose what footage you chose and why you chose it.

Mr.�BUSSMANN: Well, the museum was so kind to send me all of the shows on DVD, and I just, you know, watched them, listened to the music and just intuitively picked the right pieces, you know, the pieces that I felt that might work in a theatrical setting.

And once I had assembled a library of visuals I wanted to use, I then, you know, put them really, you know, tried to find the right pieces of the video for the right piece of music, and I edited it all together, you know, on my laptop on final cut and brought it into rehearsal, and we kind of, you know, tried it against the singers and the action, and I had to do re-edits, and finally we got to see it in the dome, which totally changed everything again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Mr.�BUSSMANN: And I did some more editing, and you know, finally, you know, we came to the result we have in the show now.

FLATOW: You know, one of the beauties of being able to combine the two is when there's just singing on the stage, and there's not a lot of action, you can listen to the beautiful music and watch the beautiful effects on the sky at the same time.

Ms.�PAULUS: That's right.

Mr.�BUSSMANN: Right, right. I mean, that has to do with the structure of the piece and also the structure of the edit that was made. I believe the original opera is over three hours long - right, Diane?

Ms.�PAULUS: The original opera clocks in about 3:45.

Mr.�BUSSMANN: Oh, wow, okay.

Ms.�PAULUS: This has been edited to a 90-minute, you know, one-journey ride to the moon and back.

Mr.�BUSSMANN: And all these scenes, recitative scenes, where people basically are talking and not singing, where all the, you know, the plot progresses and the action happens, and then there's these arias, these beautiful arias in between, that are more or less, you know, introspective moments of the characters, and that's where we actually, you know, placed the dramatic video scenes. So that's when the audience can sit back, relax, listen to the music.

FLATOW: And because you have such a limited space, the actors are performing basically on a tabletop when they're not being wheeled around on ladders, two or three at time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms.�PAULUS: Yes, well, there was - you know, there was the issue of you're in the planetarium, and you're you know, you're sitting in the seats, and you have to have good sightlines. Plus, you're really looking up. I mean, that's the design of that auditorium space is to see the dome. So there was this fundamental problem of how would we get the performers in the field of vision of the dome.

So it was all about ways in which we could raise them up so that you could look at a performer kind of floating against the dome and the videos that would be projected in the dome.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Philip, do you want to jump in there?

Mr.�BUSSMANN: Yeah, I mean, the other, you know, challenge that we put in our way by, you know, just deciding to go for it was when we did a site visit to the museum, they not only have a six-channel dome video projection system that does, you know, contemporary video graphics, but they also have an old-school Zeiss star machine, which lives on a hydraulic lift in the center of the space, and there's a trap door, it opens up beautifully, and then this big gigantic machine lifts up out of the floor and, you know, projects a star field like in the old way that they used to do at planetariums.

And we decided to use that big machine for the very first scene, and it's a very expensive machine. When the museum got it 10 years ago, it was $3.8 million, the machine alone, but we decided we wanted it to have there for the parts where they're still on Earth.

So the major problem was to, you know, once the machine is away, there's a trap door, which is a very sensitive area, and this has all these sensors that basically stop the machine from rising should, you know, kids get up during the show and run onto the pit.

So to kind of cover that sensitive area of the floor during the opera with a second floor that then would allow us to roll out ladders and tables on it, that was, in a way, you know, the biggest challenge.

FLATOW: There was something else I really enjoyed, and that was the fact that in this fiction, where they have fooled this gentleman into thinking that he is on the moon, you have him dressed in a modern space suit.

Ms.�PAULUS: Right. Well, it was sort of the journey to the moon and time travel all rolled into one, this idea of a kind of a futuristic vision of life on the moon, and what I also love is, you know, the daughters in the 18th century life on Earth are, you know, they're not really liberated, but when they get to go on the moon, you know, they're kind of superhero space travelers, and they get to act in ways they're not allowed to act on Earth.

So this idea of space travel and time travel seemed like a fun way to bring the themes of the opera out even more viscerally.

FLATOW: And the costuming is just terrific. It's sort of, I don't know, it's just gorgeously having to do with lights coming out of all the costuming. I'm almost thinking of Art Deco-ish sort of things here.

Ms.�PAULUS: Right, right - well, there was the fundamental problem for the dome and all the video technology to work really can't blast theatrical lighting on the actors. Otherwise it would wash out all the imagery.

So our costume designer, Anka Lupes, had to come up with ways to light the singers, you know, through the costuming, and we worked very closely, Philip, Anka and I, on, you know, all sorts of little book lights that were clipped to their collars that would only light their face and not spill light above their head and onto the surface of the dome.

So it was one of those exercises in, you know, a hundred problems that lead to creative solution.

FLATOW: But you also had those how shall I describe them those lighted hula-hoopers throwing their hoops around.

Ms.�PAULUS: Yes, yes, those hula-hoopers, I did a project with Malcolm the Hooper(ph). He was in one other show I directed, and I thought, gosh, you know, when I was with Philip in the planetarium, I said, you know, it's the height of the dome, and you just, you want to be able to penetrate that height, you know.

So could we have something like, you know, an object that could be thrown up in the air so that you could get a sense of that space? And then I thought of Malcolm, and of course, you know, the question of do you ever have glow-in-the-dark hula hoops, and in fact, he did have them, and then we commissioned someone to create special, all, you know, white glowing hula hoops for this production and then we had our hula hoopers as part of the they were the nymphs on the moon. In the libretto it actually talks about the nymphs on the moon. So those were our nymphs.

FLATOW: Does the libretto have the word planetarium in it, because you said in one point

Ms. PAULUS: Yes.

FLATOW: it says I have to go back to my job in the planetarium.

Ms. PAULUS: I know, you are very smart to have caught that. Actually, it doesn't mention planetarium. It basically says now that Ive got the wife and the dowry I can break my telescope, is sort of the literal Italian, so we thought. Weve got to change that, you know; its in public domain, we can do a little rewriting of the libretto so we my associate who speaks Italian helped us craft a rhyme about, you know, with a wife and dowry I can look in my, you know, (unintelligible) and quit my job at planetario, you know, so wed a little rhyming couplet in there that referenced the planetarium.

FLATOW: Yeah, I loved that. Talking with Phillip Bussmann and the Diane Paulus and the Gotham Chamber Opera, which is in partnership with the American Museum and National History doing "II Mondo Della Luna" - that the Haydn and Hayden.

Ms. PAULUS: Haydn and Hayden, yeah.

FLATOW: Haydn and Hayden, it will be running from January 19th to 28th. 1-800-989-8255. Kirsten(ph) in San Mateo. Hi, Kirsten.

KIRSTEN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

KIRSTEN: Sure. This production sounds so fantastic, but Im in California. Is there any chance that it could travel to other planetariums? We have have a spiffy new one out here in...

Ms. PAULUS: Yes. Actually, I don't know where in California you are, but I know that the folks from the San Francisco planetarium came to see the production and were very excited about it, and the Boston Museum of Science is also interested. So I think we're looking at a future life of a planetarium tour, an opera planetarium tour in the works. So, hopefully we'll make it out to California.

KIRSTEN: Oh, that's fantastic. That's right where I am, in San Francisco.

Ms. PAULUS: Oh, excellent. Good.

FLATOW: Great. Thank you, Kirsten. Have a good weekend.

CHRISTINE: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Leora(ph) in Lexington.

LEORA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LEORA: And I wanted to say that my brother, Roland Tec, in 1994 produced and directed an opera in Boston at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science called "Blind Trust." And that opera was - he was the founder and director of an opera company called Note, the New Opera Theater Ensemble that was all based on improvisation. And that opera was all in the dark. It was only sounds and smells and so it was equally accessible to blind people as it was to anybody else. And a lot of blind people came to experience the show.

FLATOW: Interesting.

Ms. PAULUS: Wow. How did he do the smells?

LEORA: He contacted, like, a smell company. I don't know exactly, you know, and had - there were a lot of different venues in the show. So I think there was a pizzeria and a laundromat and, you know, a lot of different places. And then they had fans and stuff that, you know, put the smells into - he's a very creative guy and so...

(Soundbite of laughter)


LEORA: ...that was, yeah, really cool event.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Leora.

LEORA: You're welcome.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Diane Paulus and Philip Bussmann about their opera "Il Mondo Della Luna." Any chance it could be held over? Go a little longer?

Ms. PAULUS: I know. It was completely sold out and I just think, you know, the run was so carefully crafted to fit all the singers' schedules and it's a 25-piece orchestra. So I think if anything we'll be looking for a return engagement. I think we saved everything with the thought that we might be coming back, because the demand was so great.

FLATOW: Well, and I also found very interesting, Diane, that I wanted to ask you and Phil about is that this whole thing is an illusion for the main character. It's an illusion that he is on the moon...

Ms. PAULUS: That's right.

FLATOW: ...that it has taken to the moon. And at the end of the opera, you tear away the illusion of the planetarium.

Ms. PAULUS: Right.

FLATOW: You show us - we can look right through the walls and see all the machinery behind the dome.

Ms. PAULUS: That's right. Yes. Well, you know, I think we were sitting in the planetarium one day and they put the work light on and I gasped. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, to see that skeleton of the planetarium. And I think, you know, for the folks at the planetarium, you know, they don't think about that as beautiful. That's sort of like, you know, revealing all the gear, and you know, you would never ever, ever want to show anybody that. But it was such a gorgeous image. I turned to Philip, I said, we have to use that. We have to find a moment to do that. So we were saving that for the moment when the illusion is broken for the title character.

FLATOW: Well, you've broken, Phil, and in fact, you've broken the illusion for us too, that we're actually looking at the sky. It's - everybody's illusion has been broken.

Ms. PAULUS: That's right. That's right.

FLATOW: Did you like that idea, Phil?

Mr. BUSSMANN: Oh, very much so, yes. Like with the video, this was just an, you know, intuitively the right choice, you know, to go with that look for the last act of the show.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think now that we've entered new grounds for future operas, that there might be the science and arts connection for other kinds of operas?

Ms. PAULUS: Absolutely. I think, you know, music and science have more to do with each other than they don't, you know? And the kind of beauty and sublime achievement of great music and what one can experience, you know, especially in that setting of a planetarium, the kind of awe that is inspired by a certain kind of aspiration of science in this, and exploration, you know, if the fit is right - and also, my greatest moment was being at the show the other night and I met someone there who said, well, I never go to the opera and I've never been to the planetarium. And I said, okay, is that what it takes? You have to mash these two things up together, and that gets, you know, the critical collusion of things to get an audience member out, you know, to the live theater.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. It's true and it's surprising. I was surprised how well they work together.

Ms. PAULUS: Yeah. Oh, well, great. That's great to hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, you think about, gee, I'm going to watch an opera in a planetarium. But you and Phil and everybody else put those videos together. They were just at the right time, just the right length. And to cut down from three-hours, over three hours to 90 minutes was perfect also.

Ms. PAULUS: Right.

FLATOW: Alright. I want to thank you wish you all great luck. And it's a terrific opera and a stage - the staging is amazing. "Il Mondo Della Luna," "The World on the Moon," that's Haydn's opera at the Hayden Planetarium, it's running until - at the 28th. And I want to thank Diane Paulus, artistic director for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And Philip Bussmann is the video and production designer for "Il Mondo Della Luna."

Thanks for joining us. Thanks for staying up late, Phil, in Frankfurt...

Mr. BUSSMANN: Thank you.


Ms. PAULUS: Thanks so much. Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck to both of you.

Ms. PAULUS: Take care.

Mr. BUSSMANN: Thanks.

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