You Heard That Right. An Opera About Locusts

Sep 14, 2018

Two professors from the University of Wyoming have created an original opera about the story of an unusual subject; the Rocky Mountain locust.

"Congress in the 1800s called the Rocky Mountain locust the greatest impediment to the settlement of the Western United States," said Jeff Lockwood.

Lockwood studied locusts for years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming and is now a professor of natural sciences and humanities. He said that the Rocky Mountain locust would decimate crops, leading to famine and huge economic setbacks for farmers. One documented swarm was big enough to cover the entire state of Wyoming. But in 1877, the Rocky Mountain locust vanished for mysterious reasons.

Lockwood says the reason he chose the story about vanishing locusts is because it's dramatic and literally biblical.

Anne Guzzo is the opera's composer, a fellow professor at the University of Wyoming. Guzzo admits she's not positive an opera about locusts really works.

"I'm not sure it does actually, and that's part of the attraction," Guzzo said. "An absurd opera with a locust as a main character allows you to tell allegorical tales in ways that if I just had an actual scientist telling you nothing but the science, just wouldn't be as effective."

Lockwood wrote the libretto, or the lyrics, for the opera, basing it on a book he wrote about the subject, Locust: The devastating rise and mysterious disappearance of the insect that shaped the American frontier. He worked closely with Guzzo while she composed music built around his words. They've worked together before during the Ucross-Pollination Experiment, a 2014 project that brought together scientists and artists. In many ways, Locust: The Opera is a continuation of that experiment.

Once they had the opera written, the next piece that Guzzo and Lockwood needed was a conductor. They settled on Thomas Blomster. His role is to keep everyone on track.

"I want to do my best to be really honest to what Annie wrote," said Blomster. "The training of Classical musicians, especially, is one that encourages poetic license, and I'm a real nasty cop about that stuff."

Blomster says he has a personal connection to the Rocky Mountain locust. His great-grandfather settled in the South Dakota in the late 1800s and survived locust swarms.

Next, the production needed a soprano to play the locust. Blomster and Guzzo had worked with professional soprano Cristin Colvin in the past, and they knew she was open to experimental concepts.

Colvin became much more than the soprano, though; she also worked in the role of stage director. Colvin said the opera uses absurdity and dream logic to convey more complex ideas.

"When you cross over into that permeable land into dreams, you have opportunities to envision the world in a different way. You can see creatures that don't really fit the laws of physics, and you can really play with that," said Colvin.

In the story, Colvin plays the ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust. She has a dialogue with two other characters, a farmer and a scientist. The farmer and scientist have very different relationships with the ghost of the locust. For the scientist, the locust is a muse and mystery, as he tries to discover the cause of its extinction. For the farmer, the locust threatens his survival.

It's difficult to capture the scale of a locust swarm with a small chamber opera, so Lockwood said the opera will also have audience participation.

"The audience will be equipped with sheets of cellophane. Then using a certain code that the conductor will teach them, they will make the sound of a swarm passing through the auditorium," said Lockwood.

Composer Guzzo adds, "I'm sure you've gone to a show where you were mad that someone was wrinkling the paper, and now we are actually asking you to wrinkle your program."

All the people involved in Locust: The Opera are excited to be working on something original and experimental, which Blomstar said is a rarity in opera.

"Especially in the world of the classical music, like if you play in a symphony orchestra professionally for a while, you see the same damn pieces every three years," he said.

The team hopes to tour Locust: The Opera around the world. One planned show is in Morocco at a conference for orthopterologists, who specialize in the study of grasshoppers, crickets and locusts.

The show will premiere in Jackson at the National Museum of Wildlife Art September 28 and 29.