Performance

A New Opera Tells the Story of a Paleoart Pioneer Through His Granddaughter’s Eyes

On Site Opera’s Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt in the dinosaur hall of the American Museum of Natural History explores the paleoart of Charles Knight.

<em>Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt</em> in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Shervin Lainez)
Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Shervin Lainez)

Between skeletal mounts of a Tyrannosaurus rex and Apatosaurus, On Site Opera (OSO) premiered its new production, a site-specific piece about the dinosaur paintings of early 20th-century paleoart pioneer Charles R. Knight. Told from the perspective of his eight-year-old granddaughter, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt is a family-oriented opera about art and science, set in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). A compact orchestra, and cast of three, invite visitors on a brief journey through the dinosaur bones, and how to harness the imagination to understand the past.

“Since OSO began, we have been experimenting with how to use our various performance spaces to tell pre-existing stories,” Eric Einhorn, general and artistic director of OSO, told Hyperallergic. Einhorn wrote the libretto for Rhoda, with music by John Musto, making it OSO’s first commission. The nonprofit organization started in 2012, and they’ve staged such productions as Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion among the wax celebrities at Madame Tussauds, and Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night and Hector Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) in the grand ballroom at the 1852 Harmonie Club. Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt was co-commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited and Pittsburgh Opera, in collaboration with AMNH.

“Once we had the partnership of AMNH, we worked closely with them to explore various uses of the dinosaur hall and the most effective way to tell the kind of story we were creating,” Einhorn explained. “A promenading show throughout the hall was the most natural fit for this dinosaur adventure.”

At the September 23 debut of Rhoda, the audience was a mix of wide-eyed kids, adults holding iPhones aloft, and baffled tourists. The opera is free with museum admission and the gallery isn’t closed off during the 20-minute show, allowing for curious passersby to wander in. While that fluidity of crowd can make the plot — Rhoda’s quest to aid her grandfather with his latest painting by examining the AMNH fossils — a bit muddled, the spirited performers and the unexpected use of space seemed to enchant even those who stumbled in at the end.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan is especially engaging as the young Rhoda, and tenor Patrick Cook as museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn and baritone Robert Orth as Knight bring ample enthusiasm and power to their parts, their voices rising above the museum din. And it is delightful to hear words like “maniraptor” and “scientific inference” belted in close proximity by such stellar vocalists.

Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt continues at AMNH through October 15 on Fridays at 11:30am and Saturdays and Sundays at 12:00pm and 2:30pm, after which it will be restaged at museums in Chicago and Pittsburgh that also contain Knight’s art. (Dates are TBD.) The libretto references some of his techniques, such as painting animals from life (including at the Bronx Zoo). As he sings:

Birds are the dinosaurs living today.

So if your passion sparks you to know how

Archaeopteryx flew, here’s what you do:

Just be patient,

And look in the park! Look in the zoo!

Charles R. Knight at work (courtesy On Site Opera)
Charles R. Knight at work (courtesy On Site Opera)
Painting of a Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight (courtesy On Site Opera)
Painting of a Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight (courtesy On Site Opera)

The lyrics are definitely designed for ears of all ages, yet the piece cleverly draws attention to AMNH’s sometimes overlooked artistic history. The focus on Knight happened by chance, as OSO’s co-founder met the real Rhoda at a fundraising event two years ago. Einhorn subsequently talked with Rhoda about her grandfather, and how she often accompanied Knight, who died in 1953, on his weekend painting trips to AMNH. Attendees are similarly involved in a work-in-progress on a new discovery: the Deinocheirus. A small break in the show asks visitors to help Rhoda find its bones. The problem is, they’re not all there. How then to paint an entire dinosaur from fragments? As the catchy lyrics go: “Patience / Look at your facts / Imagination / Fill in the blanks.”

“Using Rhoda’s childhood recollections and several biographical sources, I was able to create a story and libretto that contains quite a lot of truth and historical detail, even down to the real Rhoda’s favorite ice cream flavor,” Einhorn stated. It’s a chocolate chip sundae, and is Rhoda’s reward for helping her grandfather complete his paleo painting.

<em>Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt</em> in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Shervin Lainez)
Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Shervin Lainez)
<em>Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt</em> in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
<em>Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt</em> in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt continues through October 15 at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West & 79th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan). 

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