In 1990 a group of Star Trek fans approached the Metropolitan Opera with the idea of doing an opera for Star Trek's 25th anniversary in 1991. The plan may have worked if the fans had approached the Met earlier, but it takes more than a year to write and stage an opera. Still, it would have been interesting if they had succeeded.
As much as these fans thought science fiction was a natural for the medium of opera, science fiction themes in opera have been relatively few and have not achieved any level of popular or critical success. Generally, the most successful and critically received science fiction operas have been penned by composers who have a greater popular following than most composers of what is characterized as serious music. Most of these operas have never had more than one performance run and were never recorded beyond the audio recording in the back of the hall during a performance.
Although there are many operas that fit into the broad definition of science fiction, this article focuses on operas that have extraterrestrial elements in them because they are easily identified and represent the widest range of science fiction influenced operas.
Early Trips to the Moon
Opera has long been an outlet for social and political commentary, and the extraterrestrial themes in the first known opera to use an out-of-this-world idea reflects this trend. Il Mondo della Luna -- The World on the Moon -- composed in 1777 by Joseph Haydn, uses the idea of traveling to and visiting the moon as a way to parody the political and social life in 18th century Austria. The plot of Il Mondo della Luna does not actually take place on the moon. It involves tricking someone into believing that they had traveled there. But the fact that moon travel is a part of the plot hints that extraterrestrial thought was not an unknown concept in the 18th century. This opera is also enjoying some popularity at the moment with a new recording that was released in March of 2002.
Another pre-twentieth century opera involving space travel is La Voyage dans la Lune composed in 1875 by Jacques Offenbach. This opera draws heavily on From the Earth to the Moon by Offenbach's countryman, Jules Verne. In keeping with Offenbach's reputation for writing popular musical theatre, the production was a display of the theatrical special effects of the day, including a fantastical moonscape and an erupting lunar volcano.
In the first part of the twentieth century, the rather unique composer Leos Janácek wrote a one act opera entitled V'ylety pana Broucka do Mesíce -- Mr. Broucek's excursion to the moon -- in 1918. Like Il Mondo della Luna, the main character does not actually leave earth. Mr. Broucek has a drunken dream in which he takes a trip to the moon. The moon's inhabitants are pretentious and effete and live only for art. They spout boring and elaborate poetry and nourish themselves by sniffing flowers. This opera was possibly a satirical commentary on the state of the arts immediately after World War I, although it also seems to hark back to Oscar Wilde and his followers.
Science Fiction By Name
The use of extraterrestrial themes in opera changed quite drastically when science fiction became a discernable genre. The latter half of the twentieth century was a time of deep experimentation in sound production, whether breaking down western musical traditions; pulling inspiration from popular, eastern or ethnic music; or incorporating the latest technologies. Many composers found science fiction a natural theme when they wanted to use these new elements in their music.
Aniara, composed in 1959 by Karl-Birger Blomdahl and based in a poem by the same name by Henry Martinson, is considered the first true science fiction opera. It has certainly reached cult status among followers of operas with science fiction themes. The plot is a moral fable that depicts the fate of the human crew of a lost spaceship called Aniara. The spaceship is escaping a post-apocalyptic Earth with the purpose of colonizing Mars. A mechanical problem forces the ship off course and its fate is to drift forever -- like an intergalactic Flying Dutchman. The score is an eclectic mix of twelve-tone techniques, neo-Romantic orchestration and taped electronic music and remains to this day the most performed of all the science fiction based operas.
In the 1960s, despite the space race and television shows with intergalactic themes such as Star Trek and Lost in Space, the only known opera with an extraterrestrial plot is Help, Help the Globolinks! by Gian Carlo Menotti, first performed in 1968. Set in one act, this opera for children starts out with a Welles-ian (Orson that is) opening with a radio bulletin:
"Attention, Attention! An important police bulletin. Please remain calm. Unknown flying objects from another planet and strange, dangerous creatures identified so far only as Globolinks, have landed on Earth. Several regions of our country are under their control already. Be on your guard and report all incidents to your local police."
Globolinks! is about an alien invasion and the most powerful weapons against the invaders are musical instruments. The aliens can penetrate walls and doors, but are frightened by children's music. Menotti follows the trend set by Blomdahl and uses electronic taped music -- in this case, to represent the aliens -- to contrast with the acoustic music of the children.
In the 1970s extraterrestrial life remained restricted to outlets for entertainment other than opera. The one exception is The Ice Break from 1977 composed by Michael Tippett and only because an alien, rather than a god or ghost, is introduced to resolve the plot.
They Came From Outer Space
Operas with extraterrestrial themes came into their own in the 1980s and 1990s. Gian Carlo Menotti started out the 1980s with A Bride From Pluto in 1982. Like Help, Help the Globolinks!, A Bride From Pluto is a one act opera for children. In this opera, Billy, a spoiled son of a tailor, finds a spaceship from Pluto in his backyard. The passenger on the ship is the Queen of Pluto, who has searched the galaxy for a husband and has chosen Billy. If Billy marries her he can have anything in the world, except his heart and soul, which would be replaced by an electronic device that makes him immortal. Also in 1982 was the first of several operas featuring extraterrestrial themes by composer Philip Glass. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, based on a novel by Doris Lessing, is about the inhabitants of a planet forced to deal with a sudden polar shift. As with most works by Philip Glass the music is minimalist and relies on the use of synthesizers.
In 1983 composer Meredith Monk collaborated with Ping Chong in an opera entitled The Games. The plot takes place on a generation ship en route to a distant star system, where simple children's games have taken on ritual status. The music is a combination of voice and synthesizers and combines the operatic organization of Mozart with the avant-garde tendencies of Monk's music.
The first of two operas based on Doris Lessing's The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five was composed by Paul Barker in 1985. This opera takes place on a planet divided into three distinctive zones -- the harmonious zone three, the hostile zone four, and the savage zone five. The musical score is somewhere between tonality and atonality, with challenging vocal parts accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Another opera from 1985 is Rigel 9 with music by David Bedford and a libretto by Ursula K. Le Guin. Rigel 9 is a rock opera about a group of astronauts on a strange planet. The twist is, only one of the astronauts can see an alien city. The music is Philip Glass-like, using both acoustic instruments and synthesizers.
Philip Glass's next opera with an extraterrestrial theme is 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. It premiered in 1988 in Hangar #3 at the Vienna International Airport. This opera is an alien abduction story and has been described as part Freud, part Kafka, and part Steven Spielberg. Also in 1988, Michael Tippett continued his trend of introducing extraterrestrial visitors in his opera New Year. Three aliens from "Nowhere" and "Tomorrow" arrive on the their space ship to change the lives of three people from "Somewhere" and "Today."
1989 saw the release of the concept album The Iron Man, composed by Pete Townshend based on the children's book The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. This rock opera features a dragon from space. Another opera from 1989 is Under the Double Moon composed by Anthony Davis. The plot takes place on a planet covered with oceans and islands and inhabited by humans and water-dwelling humanoids. The instrumentation is traditional and the musical style is a mixture of jazz improvisation, declamatory vocal technique, and atonality.
The 1990s started out with another opera for children -- A Wrinkle in Time composed by Libby Larsen and based on the story by Madeleine L'Engle. The main characters in this 1992 opera "wrinkle" to another planet. The musical score includes recorded electronic sound and a synthesized keyboard. In Larsen's quest to write music that is recognizably American, she composed the music to sound like spoken English.
Livstegn -- Signs of Life -- composed by Wayne Siegel in 1994 is a multi-media opera for nine musicians, four singers, an interactive computer system, and video. The plot involves a permanent base submerged in the waters beneath a thick layer of ice on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The scientists on the base explore the ocean and search for signs of life. In keeping with the theme of the story about the relationship between man and machine, the performing computers interact with the singers and musicians and create live sound effects, music, and images. To round out the multi-media aspect of the work, a large screen displays live video of the performers plus images from space and video segments produced specifically for the opera.
The second opera based on The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five was composed by Philip Glass and was performed in Heidelberg, Germany in 1997. Glass considers this opera to be a sequel to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, and like that opera, this one has not gained the popularity of some of his other works.
Three operas came on the scene in 1999. The most well known is Magic Frequencies, a chamber opera by Meredith Monk. This opera features three extraterrestrial characters who have very curious minds about ordinary everyday things. The music is minimalist and possesses a childlike quality. The opera Faith, composed by Michael Ching and based on a story by James Patrick Kelly, does not have an extraterrestrial theme but is worth mentioning because it contains a funny operatic tribute to the movie Plan 9 From Outer Space. The other opera from 1999 with a title that suggests an extraterrestrial theme is Eighteen Months to Earth with music by John Niec and a libretto by Lucy Lang Day. Unfortunately, no other details are known of this work, except that Mr. Niec wrote it for his senior project for college.
Into the Future
Composers at the beginning of the twenty-first century aren't delving into operas with extraterrestrial themes with as much enthusiasm as they did in the last two decades of the twentieth century. An opera called Lunare is being developed in 2002 by the composer Max Giteck Duyker, playwright Howard Kingkade, and by proto-type -- a New York company that specializes in multi-disciplinary performance events. This work revolves around a young king who loses his mind after witnessing the horrors of intergalactic war. The music will be a mixture of classical, rock, and jazz and the production will include large screens used to display images.
While extraterrestrial themes will probably never become common in opera, they will certainly spice up the operatic repertoire and give the audience a unique and always thought-provoking night of entertainment.
List of Recordings:
- 1000 Planes on the Roof -- Philip Glass
- Virgin Classics #86106, 1989
- Help, Help the Globolinks! -- Gian Carlo Menotti
- Newport Classic NPD 85633, 1998
- Rigel 9 -- David Bedford
- Virgin CDOVD484 1985, CD reissue 1997
- Suite from New Year -- Michael Tippett
- Chandos CHAN 9500-2
- Il Mondo Della Luna -- Joseph Haydn
- Philips 2002
- The Iron Man -- Pete Townsend
- Atlantic #81996, 1989
C. A. Casey is a Music Editor for Strange Horizons.
Brown, Tanya. "The Music of the Spheres: Classical Music and Science Fiction," Vector #204 (March/April 1999).