Opera tells tale of un­known in­ven­tor “Tesla”

Mu­si­cal trib­ute ‘Tesla’ plays Mi­ami Beach

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - ON STAGE - By Rod Stafford Hag­wood

When com­poser Car­son Kiev­man first got the idea to do an opera about Nikola Tesla in the 1980s, no one re­ally knew much about the Gilded Age in­ven­tor.

Sure, there was the hard-rock band and, much later, the elec­tric car, both of which bor­rowed the sur­name. But who was this Nikola Tesla and what made him op­er­a­wor­thy?

“We didn’t read about him in our his­tory books,” the North Mi­ami Beach res­i­dent says. “He spent close to 70 years in ab­ject poverty and com­pletely un­known, this great, bril­liant man. That struck me deep.”

Now, 31 years af­ter Kiev­man first started to com­pose “Tesla,” the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary opera will have a world pre­miere this week­end as a SoBe Arts pro­duc­tion at the Colony Theatre in Mi­ami Beach.

Per­haps best known for his work with the in­duc­tion mo­tor and al­ter­nat­ing cur­rent (AC) elec­tri­cal sup­ply, Tesla (1856-1943) was a Ser­bian im­mi­grant who also laid the foun­da­tion for mod­ern-day wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lasers, neon and flu­o­res­cent light­ing, Xrays, re­mote con­trol, robotics and ra­dio trans­mis­sion.

“I was sur­prised that this man had cre­ated ev­ery­thing that we use in the 21st cen­tury,” Kiev­man says. “What re­ally sparked this opera was when I found out that when he found out that ev­ery- thing he cre­ated would re­sult in the use of fos­sil fu­els, and he knew that wouldn’t be good, he walked away from all these patents and in­ven­tions. He gave away mil­lions … to go work on an en­ergy creation that would not pol­lute the at­mo­sphere. And he wanted to give it away for free. The pow­ers that be of that time — John D. Rock­e­feller, J.P. Mor­gan, [Ge­orge] West­ing­house — they all de­stroyed him. They were mak­ing mil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars off ev­ery­thing he in­vented.”

“Tesla” will be told with nine prin­ci­pal vo­cal­ists, a six-mem­ber cho­ral ensem­ble and a 25-piece cham­ber orches­tra in front of a set that uses dig­i­tal pro­jec­tions. The nar­ra­tor is Mark Twain, a friend of Tesla in real life. Other peers from Tesla’s life are char­ac­ters in the opera, in­clud­ing West­ing­house, Mor­gan and Thomas Edi­son.

Kiev­man has writ­ten seven op­eras, in­clud­ing “Ham­let,” which was com­mis­sioned by the New York Shake­speare Fes­ti­val. He be­lieves that mu­sic is the right medium to tell this story.

“One thing I’ve learned, and I’ve writ­ten a lot about sci­ence … is that peo­ple don’t want to be lec­tured,” he says. “They don’t want to be told that you shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that. But if you ex­plain what’s go­ing on with mu- sic and theater, but es­pe­cially mu­sic, it’s much eas­ier for them to take. And maybe we’ll do some good.”

Hav­ing co-writ­ten the li­bretto with the late play­wright Thomas Babe, Kiev­man thinks the story will res­onate with South Florid­i­ans, “be­cause the idea of cli­mate change and sea rise is so crit­i­cal here. These were things that Tesla was al­ready think­ing about in the 19th cen­tury. If we don’t do some­thing … Florida will be un­der wa­ter. I think ev­ery­one re­al­izes some­thing has to be done, and it has to be done now.”

Kiev­man says there was go­ing to be a stag­ing “in 1992, when we Where: When: Cost: Con­tact: were hit by Hur­ri­cane An­drew. Now, 25 years later we’re pre­mier­ing, and we’re hit by Hur­ri­cane Irma. That’s not lost on me.”

The first in­car­na­tion of the opera ap­peared in1986 at the Eu­gene O’Neil Mu­sic Theater Con­fer­ence. About 1998, a read­ing was held at the Ho­tel Colon­nade Coral Gables. Babe died from can­cer in 2000. Four years later, a work­shop took place at the New York City Opera Vox fes­ti­val. Feed­back was tepid, with one at­tendee say­ing, “Who wants to see an opera about an im­mi­grant sci­en­tist from Ser­bia Croa­tia?” The li­bretto was re­vised with the help of Mi­ami Beach writer Mark David Nee­dle (who has also worked with Kiev­man on the opera “Fairy Tales, Songs of the Dan­de­lion Woman,” which was also pre­miered by SoBe Arts in 2014), and the score was com­pleted in 2016. While this was go­ing on in the opera world, Tesla was trending in the cy­ber world.

“The car came along,” Kiev­man re­calls. “And peo­ple got more cu­ri­ous and now he’s gone vi­ral, es­pe­cially with mil­len­ni­als. I had a Google [alert], and I used to get one, maybe two hits. Now, I get 600, 700, 800 — 1,000 a day some­times. He’s def­i­nitely on peo­ple’s minds.”

COUR­TESY

The mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary opera “Tesla” runs through Oct. 1 at the Colony Theatre in Mi­ami Beach. Colony Theatre, 1040 Lin­coln Road, in Mi­ami Beach. Through Oct. 1. Show­times are 8 p.m. to­day and Satur­day, with a 3 p.m. mati­nee Sun­day. Tick­ets cost $45 (gen­eral ad­mis­sion) and $60 (VIP). ColonyMB.org/Tesla.

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