Entomological Storytelling: Why We Wrote an Opera About Locusts (Really!)
By Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Ph.D.
Collectively, our society has a pressing need for scientific literacy, but the challenge is how to engage the public and communicate science in forms that are evocative, memorable, and intelligent. Musical theater is experiencing a resurgence, as evidenced by Hamilton (11 Tony Awards and playing to packed houses) and La La Land (six Academy Awards and grossing $340 million).
The use of story is central to connecting with people—and this approach drove a collaboration between myself, composer Anne Guzzo, Ph.D., and visual artist Ashley Carlisle, M.F.A.—all of us professors at the University of Wyoming—to craft the epic tale of the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus). People are far more likely to engage, understand, and remember what they see or hear in a narrative context. And the story of the Rocky Mountain locust, which formed a swarm covering nearly 200,000 square miles in 1875, was ripe for transformation into a commensurately grand form. Perhaps even more remarkable than the breathtaking scale of its outbreaks was its sudden disappearance, with the last living specimen being collected in 1902.
Opera is a synergistic combination of literary, visual, and performing arts that has flourished for more than 400 years because of two essential features. First, opera is grounded in the power of words and the capacity of music to crystallize and intensify the meaning of words. Words evoke rational analysis, while music elicits transcendent feeling. And, second, opera is rooted in archetypal characters and plots exemplifying timeless, human struggles.
How does this brief account explain our motivation to develop an opera about an insect? The relationship between humanity and the natural world is perhaps the longest standing tension in the history of our species. Locusts tap into an ancient sense of dread among agricultural civilizations. And these insects evoke a sense of our own capacity to shape the world and our existential insecurity on a planet that is changing around us.
Locust: The Opera is an environmental murder mystery in which solving the century-old extinction of an iconic species provides lessons for the modern world. The ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust haunts a scientist until he can figure out how a creature that once blackened the skies of the West vanished. The opera is based on my book Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic, 2004).
This one-hour chamber opera premiered at the National Wildlife Art Museum outside of Jackson, Wyoming, on Friday, September 28. The voices included an entomologist (tenor), rancher (baritone), and locust/ghost (soprano), along with the Colorado Chamber Orchestra. In addition, the audience created, and were immersed in, the sound of a locust swarm by crinkling sheets of tissue paper at key moments. The response of the audience—both opera buffs and neophytes—was remarkably enthusiastic.
I earned a Ph.D. in entomology in 1986 and worked for 17 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming. Seeking to bring my scientific knowledge to new audiences, I metamorphosed into a professor of natural sciences and humanities in the department of philosophy (teaching environmental ethics and philosophy of ecology) and the program in creative writing (teaching workshops in nonfiction).
My role in Locust: The Opera was that of the librettist (the lyrics of an opera are technically a libretto). I distilled a 100,000-word book into a 1,350-word libretto lying somewhere between prose and poetry. In conceiving of the libretto, I had three major concerns. First, I wanted to capture the ecological richness of the story with scientific accuracy. Next, I sought to explore the moral complexity of the events—the locust caused terrible suffering, but its loss was an environmental tragedy. And, finally, I wanted to tell a story that would resonate with the public.
At the end of opera, the ghost asks the entomologist what he has learned about humanity’s place in the natural world. Perhaps never before in human history has it been more vital for us to come to terms with our own power and responsibility regarding our fellow inhabitants of the planet.
So, what comes next? Thanks to the Orthopterists Society and a generous, private donor, Locust: The Opera will be featured at the 13th International Congress of Orthopterology in Agadir, Morocco, in March 2019. And after that? We are in conversation with the International Congress of Entomology regarding possibilities for staging the opera in Helsinki in 2020. And we hope to find opportunities to bring the show to more audiences, both entomologists and beyond, in the future.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Ph.D., is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming and author of several books on popular science and history themes, both fiction and nonfiction. Web: jeffreylockwoodauthor.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.