Next month, a movie called The Current War will debut, chronicling the struggle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for the electrical system – direct or alternating current – that would power the looming industrial future.
The movie also includes Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-born advocate of AC power who also dreamed big about bringing energy to the entire globe for free, and whose name has become a byword for scientific purity and innovation. No matter what the fate of the movie, it’s fair to say Tesla is once again good box office.
The current high interest in this singular scientist who died 74 years ago makes the premiere of a new opera on this subject of more than usual note. The SoBe Arts nonprofit of Miami Beach mounted four performances (Sept. 28-Oct. 1) of Tesla, an opera about Tesla’s life and work composed by Carson Kievman, SoBe’s founder; he also had a hand in the libretto, originally written by the late Thomas Babe for an earlier iteration of this project.
Kievman and his cast and crew presented this opera at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, a good venue for the piece, even if there had to be some adaptations such as removing some seats to create an orchestra pit, and parking the brass section of the 25-piece orchestra in one of the front rows that wasn’t removed. That did no violence to the production itself, which was well-designed and well-directed, and which made the most of the text and the music (I saw the Oct. 1 performance).
Kievman’s score is considerably more lyrical than the previous three operas of his that SoBe has presented during the past five years – Hamlet, Fairy Tales: Songs of the Dandelion Woman, and Intelligent Systems. A scene at the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893 begins with music that sounds very much of that period, and one of Tesla’s arias, “Steeped in the forest where I called my home,” which recurs several times, is a easily memorable modal tune that floats above an ostinato falling fifth in very effective fashion.
Much of the rest of the score features a restless, intense, sometimes minimalist musical language that drives relentlessly forward without much respite, mirroring the devotion and passion that Telsa himself exhibited throughout his life. While two of Kievman’s most recent productions have been far more avant-garde, this one is much more mainstream, direct and accessible, and its music is always interesting.
That said, the opera suffers from that intensity because the full-on drive of the music, much of it in minor keys, makes it hard for the audience to take the whole thing in. It needs more places for the action and the music to relax, for a character to reflect and give us some insight so that we can become fully invested in this fascinating person and his life. Unlike Fairy Tales or Intelligent Systems, which were oriented to states of mind and discrete incidents respectively, this opera is a story about a real-life person, and that needs a different approach.
Tesla chronicles the life of the scientist from his arrival in New York in 1884 to his death there in 1943. His story is introduced and mediated by Mark Twain (Trevor Martin), who appears first as a Disney animatronic figure and at one point mistakenly speaks Croatian. Twain comes to life at a party, as does his animatronic Huckleberry Finn (a trouser role for soprano Emily Solo), who becomes a street urchin named Tommie who helps Tesla with his experiments. Tesla (Kenneth Mattice) arrives from Austria-Hungary with a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison (Chris Vettel), and at his lab meets George Westinghouse (Timothy Stoddard), as well as Charles Proteus Steinmetz (Benjamin Werley) and financier J.P. Morgan (Kyle Albertson).
Edison, who advocated direct current as the superior choice for electricity but lost out to Tesla and Westinghouse’s alternating current, becomes Tesla’s bête noire, staging a brutal street execution of Tommie’s dog, Juniper, to show the dangers of AC. Tesla lights up the Chicago exposition, paving the way for a hydroelectric dam at Niagara Falls two years later, but begins to be obsessed by the idea that his work will require the burning of fossil fuels, to the planet’s detriment. He renounces the checks Westinghouse gives him and works on his free-for-all energy project in Colorado, where he has a sexual encounter with Marie Astor Hampton (Anastasia Malliaras) that is interrupted by lab assistants rushing in to say that the lab is on fire.
Eventually, Morgan and Westinghouse become exasperated by Tesla’s continual requests for money, especially after his radio project is eclipsed by Guglielmo Marconi. Reduced to poverty and sitting for hours in the park feeding pigeons, Tesla looks back on his life and stiffens, becoming an animatronic figure that joins Twain and Huckleberry.
This production was distinguished by three standout singing performances in the performances of Mattice, Vettel and Albertson. Mattice, who has starred in two other Kievman operas and is principal baritone at Germany’s Theater Hagen, has a powerful, beautiful baritone voice whose strength never faltered and which betrayed no blemish. His characterization of Tesla was passionate and conflicted, as the man himself was, and the role as written could scarcely have been better realized.
Baritone Vettel made a marvelous Edison, equal parts menace and forthrightness, singing difficult music with flair and precision and making Kievman and Babe’s interpretation of the inventor every bit as memorable as Tesla himself. Albertson, a bass-baritone, displayed a wonderfully rich and sonorous instrument as the money man Morgan, and came off persuasively as a big shot who wants his investments to pay off and is frustrated when they don’t.
Tenor Timothy Stoddard as Westinghouse also was a fine performer, but some of the music is written ungratefully high and awkwardly, and Stoddard had some trouble with it. He brought just enough guile and sleaze to his portrayal of Westinghouse to indict him, like Edison and Morgan, as a greedhead who was interested in science only as a path to fame and riches. As Twain, baritone Martin was hard to hear in the first few minutes of the opera, but his voice took on more presence as the show continued. Werley, a good tenor, didn’t have much to do as Steinmetz, but he sang his part with forcefulness, and tried to suggest some of the scientist’s physical disability (the historical Steinmetz was a dwarf and a hunchback).
Solo, as Tommie/Huckleberry, had a charming stage presence as a small boy, though her voice was very light and sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra. Malliaras, whose small role is shoehorned in, has a big soprano voice with a nice bloom to it; she looked beautiful in Nuria Currasco Dominguez’s picture-perfect late Victorian dress and she handled the brief sex scene with Tesla gamely. Courtney Miller, a mezzo familiar to Florida Grand Opera audiences, was fine in her couple lines as Mrs. Edison and important as a central member of the six-person chorus.
In addition to being fortunate in his principal singers, Kievman was also blessed by his production staff. Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman kept the focus of the action where it needed to be at all times, made deft use of the chorus as commenters on the action, and kept the motion going for a story that is inherently undramatic.
Stephan Moravski’s sets, which made use of a series of panels that simulated trees as well as home interiors, were simple, clean and very effective, and well-supported by Paul DiPierro’s projections and Jeffrey Bruckerhoff’s tasteful lighting design. As noted earlier, the costumes by Nuria Currasco Dominguez expertly re-created the late 19th- and early 20th-century milieu in which these characters lived, as did Emily Malin’s wig design.
The 25-piece orchestra of fine South Florida freelancers was excellent, and led with precision by Mary Adelyn Kauffmann. A lot of good arts professionals came together for this production, and it probably got as good a first life in the theater as Kievman could have hoped for.
On the negative side, the production had no surtitles, and in some cases the words were hard to make out, especially when the orchestration was at its thickest. And while Tesla’s entirely fictional coupling with Marie Astor Hampton was interesting, it also didn’t really work with the rest of the story. She wasn’t in the action enough for a romantic fling to be plausible (and the historical Tesla appears to have been celibate).
Having Tesla as the central character would have been better served by having the driving factors of Tesla’s motivation more clearly spelled out. The Marie character could have been used to fill out his character with an aria in which she talks about what she sees in him, and he could have an aria to himself about the catastrophe he sees if the world keeps burning fossil fuels. While Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan were effectively delineated, Tesla himself remains somewhat mysterious; the opera doesn’t give us a strong sense of his commitment other than angst writ large.
This is a good idea for an opera, and it could have wide appeal with some libretto and music changes. As is, it’s an impressive piece, written with commitment and performed and produced with excellence from top to bottom. And it also has a quality that gives the most engaging art its urgency: Relevance.