What happens when an entomologist writes a libretto?
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.
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.
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.
J. Lockwood. Locust: The devastating rise and mysterious disappearance of the insect that shaped the American frontier. Basic Books, 2004.
A. Witze. Swarming locusts impossible to predict. Science News Online. July 23, 2010.
J.A. Lockwood and L.D. Debrey. A solution for the sudden and unexplained extinction of the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae). Environmental Entomology. Vol. 19, October 1990, p. 1194. doi: 10.1093/ee/19.5.1194.