Opera About Radio Pioneer Previews At The Hopkins Center

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Radio lovers owe a debt to a brilliant engineer named Nikola Tesla. The inventor from Croatia revolutionized the study of electro-magnetism. 

But Tesla was also socially awkward and descended into poverty and madness.

For composer Phil Kline and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Tesla’s story had all the makings of an opera.

They’re still writing the piece, but parts of the work-in-progress will be staged this week at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover.

Kline and Jarmusch were childhood buddies, and used to play in a rock band together. Kline went on to make avant garde music. And Jarmusch is known for edgy movies.

But to tell the story of the mysterious turn-of-the-century genius who helped invent radio, they chose something much more traditional — opera.

The eloquent "Tesla in New York" is ironically about a genius who communicated poorly with others-even the woman who secretly loved him.

"Katharine Johnson is this interesting socialite who adored Tesla and he flirted with her but there was never anything going on. I mean Tesla was the least likely person to be ever involved… as far as anybody knows he was completely celibate," Kline said.

Katharine might have wished otherwise. Played by Rosalie Sullivan, she sings a passionate aria about a magazine photograph of Tesla’s hand. The hand is illuminated by fluorescent lights-which Tesla invented. 

In the opera, scenes flash backward and forward from Tesla’s childhood to his meetings with fellow pioneers Edison and Westinghouse, to his lab-which burns down-to his work on an electrical ray he believes can deter world war.

Earlier this week composer Kline talked about the eccentric engineer’s legacy over lunch at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. One professor asked Kline whether Tesla’s mathematical theories affected the musical structure of the piece.

"No," Kline, answered. " I reacted emotionally. I tried not to react to his deeds so much. Because that was the feeling I had in the beginning, I said, this guy is too flashy and interesting, I’ve got to just put that on hold and get down to something else. And actually, Tesla’s personal story is pretty sad."

At the end, Tesla’s erratic dealings with his financier, the fabulously wealthy J. Pierpoint Morgan, go sour.  The engineering maverick is left alone in a hotel room, surrounded by the creatures he loves best — pigeons. Ryland Angel, a counter tenor, sings eerily about Tesla’s most beloved bird, as it dies.

"Tesla in New York" is not yet finished, and financial backing is still being sought for what composer Kline hopes will be a full-scale opera a year or two from now.  He is writing both the music and libretto, and collaborator Jim Jarmusch is creating short films — also still in progress — for the future production.

Music from the opera will be presented at the Hop April 5 and 6. Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering has also mounted a Nikola Tesla fair, replicating some of his inventions as well as more modern ones that depend on his legacy.

Click on the link at the top of the page to hear the full interview with Phil Kline


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