The Top Three Operas with Nerd Appeal

Thursday, October 18, 2012 - 12:00 AM

From astronomy and math to physics and comparative literature, operas with nerd appeal are becoming increasingly popular. "Science, technology and the capacity of the human intellect engage nerds all the time,” says F. Paul Driscoll editor in chief of Opera News, “So why shouldn’t that go into the opera house?”  


In this edition of Opera in Brief, F. Paul Driscoll names three operas with nerd appeal:

1. Dr. Atomic

The opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars is about testing the first atomic bomb, and includes lots of technical language and prose. “J. Robert Oppenheimer was not only a physicist; he was also a poetry nerd. He was the kind of genius that recognized that everything is connected,” says Driscoll. The best-known moment in the opera features Oppenheimer as he recalls a sonnet by John Donne, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” The poem inspired him to name the test site, “Trinity.”

The Singer:

Gerald Finley singing “Batter My Heart”  London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of John Eliot Gardner

2. Grendel

Julie Taymor developed and directed this opera with composer Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor and Goldenthal are real life partners as well. The opera is centered on the monstrous character Grendel in the epic poem Beowulf, and his battles with supernatural beasts and demons. “This was a break-out performance for bass-baritone Eric Owens,” says Driscoll. “The size of the imagination that was put on stage was huge and to see it brought to life by one man singing his heart out was incredibly moving.”

The Singer:

Eric Owens as Grendel

3. Kepler

Composed by Philip Glass this opera is based on the life and work of the 16th- and 17th-century mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, Johannes Kepler. The libretto by Martina Winkler is in both German and Latin. “It doesn’t get much nerdier than that,” says Driscoll. An English version was created for the American premiere at Spoleto.

Glass wrote two other operas inspired by physics, Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Galileo Galilei (2002). Kepler airs on WQXR's Operavore stream this week as part of the program World of Opera.

The Singers:

Singing “Genesis” – The soloists and chorus of the Landestheater Linz under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies.


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Comments [2]

Les from Miami, Florida

If asked, the first three to come to mind are Pfitzner's "Palestrina", Hindemith's "Cardillac" and also his "Mathis der Maler", though the symphonic extract from the latter is fairly popular (would that it were more so). I'm not familiar with any of the operas mentioned.

Oct. 18 2012 08:47 AM
Joe deBy from Peterborough, Ontario.

Dear Jeff: Like you and so many others I've always known that Chopin piano opus as the "minute" waltz as one sixtieth of an hour. Just this past week I heard a noted pianist point out, not so. The title is a description of the Size of the composition. It is very tiny, or MY-nute. Keep up the wonderful programming. I've been enjoying it since 1949 growing up in Toronto. Joe deBy.

Oct. 18 2012 08:23 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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