How locust ecology inspired an opera

What happens when an entomologist writes a libretto?

soprano Cristin Colvin performing

INSECT ARIA  In an opera about species extinction, soprano Cristin Colvin of Denver performed in September as the ghost of the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Amber Baesler

Locust: The Opera finds a novel way to doom a soprano: species extinction.

The libretto, written by entomologist Jeff Lockwood of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, features a scientist, a rancher and a dead insect. The scientist tenor agonizes over why the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct at the dawn of the 20th century. He comes up with hypotheses, three of which unravel to music and frustration.

The project hatched in 2014. “Jeff got in his head, ‘Oh, opera is a good way to tell science stories,’ which takes a creative mind to think that,” says Anne Guzzo, who composed the music. Guzzo teaches music theory and composition at the University of Wyoming.

an illustration of a Rocky Mountain locust
TERRIFYING TIME The Rocky Mountain locust was a grasshopper species that occasionally built up such numbers that they massed together and flew in giant, ravenous swarms. Julius Bien/Wikimedia commons
The Melanoplus spretus locust brought famine and ruin to farms across the western United States. “This was a devastating pest that caused enormous human suffering,” Lockwood says. Epic swarms would suddenly descend on and eat vast swaths of cropland. “On the other hand, it was an iconic species that defined and shaped the continent.”
an illustration of a locust swarm devouring a wheat field
LOCUST APOCALYPSE A locust swarm descends on, and will destroy, a wheat field in this drawing from an 1874 Missouri entomologist’s report. Giant swarms were one of the most feared disasters of frontier life. C.V. Riley/The Locust Plague of the United States 1877
Lockwood had written about the locust’s mysterious and sudden extinction in the 2004 book Locust , but the topic “begged in my mind for the grandeur of opera.” He spent several years mulling how to create a one-hour opera for three singers about the swarming grasshopper species.

Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the opera “Amleto,” based on Shakespeare’s play, inspired a breakthrough. Lockwood imagined a spectral soprano locust, who haunted a scientist until he figured out what killed her kind.

To make one locust soprano represent trillions, Guzzo challenged her music theory class to find ways of evoking the sound of a swarm. They tried snapping fingers, rattling cardstock and crinkling cellophane. But “the simplest answer was the most elegant,” Guzzo says — tasking the audience with shivering sheets of tissue paper in sequence, so that a great wave of rustling swept through the auditorium.

For the libretto, Lockwood took an unusually data-driven approach. After surveying opera lengths and word counts, he paced his work at 25 to 30 words per minute, policing himself sternly. If a scene was long by two words, he’d find two to cut.

a composite photo with composer Anne Guzzo on the left and entomologist Jeff Lockwood on the right
SCIENCE MEETS SONG Composer Anne Guzzo (left) set music to a libretto written by entomologist Jeff Lockwood for the opera about locusts, pushing science communication into new realms. Courtesy of J.A. Lockwood
He wrote the dialogue not in verse, but as conversation, some of it a bit professorial. Guzzo asked for a few line changes. “I just couldn’t get ‘manic expressions of fecundity’ to fit where I wanted it to,” she says.

Eventually, the scientist solves the mystery, but takes no joy in telling the beautiful locust ghost that humans had unwittingly doomed her kind by destroying vital locust habitat. For tragedy, Lockwood says, “there has to be a loss tinged with a kind of remorse.”

The opera, performed twice in Jackson, Wyo., will next be staged in March in Agadir, Morocco.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

More Stories from Science News on Animals