“Maybe there’s a physicist sitting right beside you, who can explain this better than we do, but we’re in the business of art, so we’ll make a metaphor,” sings Hai-Ting Chinn in Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments. This labor of science-love by the mezzo-soprano involves a hoop skirt doubling as the solar system, a papier-mâché volcano exploding with baking soda and vinegar, and a metaphor that turns the HERE Arts Center theater into the nucleus of an atom, with the audience members as protons.
In the spirit of scientific clarity, Chinn is approaching the piece as a peer-reviewed performance. If you find anything “inaccurate, misleading, or could be better stated in another way,” she notes, “please let us know and we will consider revisions for the next version of the show.” I happened to have caught a version of the performance when it was in development back in 2014. Through Chinn’s years of work on the piece as a HERE Resident Artist, it’s blossomed into a 75-minute science demonstration that doesn’t waste a lyric in exploring natural phenomena.
Each is presented in Chinn’s affecting, operatic voice, along with visual demonstrations. Chinn is probably best known for her captivating performance of Philip Glass’s wordless aria in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach, although science has long been a passion, including her co-hosting of the Scopes Monkey Choir podcast on science and music.
It’s advised that you grab a coffee before the show, as the lyrics are mostly penned by scientists, or taken from sources like the NASA Goddard Flight Center, and favor facts over lyricism. For example, from the song “History of the Universe”: “Oxygen, free in the air. For most alive, this was a catastrophe, / but it paved the way for eukaryotic cells with their organelles, nucleus, / and their mighty mitochondrial engines.”
Yet Chinn imbues everything — from a live experiment extracting DNA from a strawberry, to using her own powerful vocal chords to discuss sound waves — with a Tom Lehrer-like madcap humor and charm. (On the night I attended, an attempt to percussively improvise with crystal wine glasses and bottle blowing devolved into giggles with her piano accompanist and music director Erika Switzer.) Set to music by composers Matthew Schickele, Renée Favand-See, Stefan Weisman, and Conrad Cummings, explanations of the formation of the universe and when humans finally came along are given opera’s musical gravitas.
Chinn opens with a quote from Marie Curie — “I am among those who think that science has great beauty” — and her enthusiasm for her subject propels the show. (And if anything flies by your head amid the music, live experiments, and singing, you can find the full libretto online.) The scientific facts and theories are mostly things you might have learned (and later forgotten) in middle and high school, like the structure of atoms and orbital gravity, but without a solid theme linking each through the show it can be hard as a listener to so quickly mentally shift from one topic to the next. However, Science Fair ends gracefully with Chinn wearing a hat that positions a small moon against a light, representing the sun. As she turns, a camera records her perspective, which represents the phases of the moon that we see from Earth. “Have you noticed that half the moon is always bright?,” she intones. “The phases of the moon are only what we see / From our place in this orbital geometry.” Maybe you won’t leave with those school memories retrieved, but Science Fair is more about inspiring curiosity through whatever medium one has available, which for Chinn means the unrivaled drama of opera.