Singing the Opera Electric

Juventas New Music Ensemble presents world premiere of Light and Power: A Tesla/Edison Story

By , Columnist

When you hear the word "opera," do you picture a high-class affair in an ornate hall, attended by blue-haired ladies wearing furs, and featuring doomed lovers bellowing in a language you don't understand, backed up by a chorus of soldiers carrying spears, and maybe a horse or two? You're probably not alone, but you should know that today's opera world reaches well beyond that stuffy old stereotype, from re-imagined versions of traditional repertory to freshly composed works by living composers. In one case, at least, opera can be downright electrifying!

Next week, Boston-based Juventas New Music Ensemble will present the world premiere of Light and Power: A Tesla/Edison Story, with a libretto by Jillian Burcar and music by Isaac Schankler. The protagonist is Nikola Tesla, inventor, scientist and pioneer of modern electrical engineering, and the plot explores his rivalry with American inventor Thomas Edison in the so-called "War of Currents."

The concept may sound geeky and obscure, but there's plenty of dramatic potential to the story. As co-director Roxana Myhrum explains, "I love bringing to life historical characters, and using opera to explore themes that are hyper-theatrical and really exciting. Tesla really needed an opera written about him. His story involves intrigue, world travel, betrayal - all grounded in the physics of electricity."

Light and Power.jpgCo-director Erin Huelskamp adds that their production aims "to showcase today's thoughts about events that happened in our culture, and created the world we have today." Indeed, you wouldn't be reading this right now were it not for Tesla's alternating current method of electricity transmission, which beat out Edison's direct current to become the standard for power delivery to homes and businesses.

Edison is portrayed as a villain and a bully in this telling, in contrast to the sensitive and eccentric Tesla, who is portrayed by a soprano. The choice of a female singer to portray a male character was influenced by Tesla's personality, according to librettist Jillian Burcar; he was celibate and wrote that he considered women to be "the superior race." The choice may seem hyper-modern, but it connects to a longstanding operatic tradition of "pants roles," or male characters sung by female singers.

Miss Music Nerd attended a sneak preview of the opera last month, held in an ensemble member's home, and was impressed by the ambition and resourcefulness of music director Lidiya Yankovskaya and the other young musicians who run this five-year-old company. The evening featured a performance of a duet between Tesla and Supernova, an imaginary character who functions as Tesla's muse and confessor. Among the refreshments served was a cake with the inscription, "Juventas Brings you Light and Power," which I imagine caused some poor bakery artist to wonder if their creation would soon show up online in a not-so-flattering way. Not to worry!

Light and Power will be presented Thursday, May 19, Friday, May 20, and Saturday, May 21, 2011, at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 2:00 p.m., at the Cambridge YMCA Theater, 820 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, Mass. Tickets are $75 preferred (includes $25 donation), $25 regular, $15 student/senior; young opera fans 12 and under get in free.

As I said last week, Go out and hear something! And tell 'em Miss Music Nerd sent you!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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