Science Opera Takes Students on a ‘Fieldtrip’ to Infinity and Beyond
CHICKASHA – Writing an opera may not sound like rocket science, but for a handful of writers at the University of Science and Arts, the opposite is true. “The Quantum Fieldtrip” is an original educational opera about science and space written by two USAO staff members and an alumna. The cosmic opera debuts Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. with a free performance in the Te Ata Memorial Auditorium.
Chickasha elementary students will be privy to a special preview performance of the science opera Nov. 9 at 1 p.m. More than 300 local fourth and fifth graders are expected to attend.
The brainchild of Julie Bohannon, director of alumni development at USAO, “Fieldtrip” is written specifically for children to introduce them to the wonders of science. Geared at young students, the opera features songs about the solar system, the making of a water molecule and even the ambiguity of Pluto’s place in space.
According to Bohannon, the operatic idea evolved from conversations with Dr. Stephen Weber, associate professor of music.
“Steve and I worked on a song cycle together,” Bohannon said. “When I mentioned the possibility of writing a children’s opera, I don’t think he thought it would actually get written!”
For creative assistance to help write the opera, Bohannon called on fellow thespian John Morgan and creative writer Jenese Snow, who graduated from USAO in 1998. Morgan is a 1997 alumnus who also serves as the theater facilities manager for USAO.
After researching elementary science principles, the self-named “J crew” gathered several times from January through April, 2006 and co-wrote a 40-minute libretto covering the universe, physics, planetary science and Albert Einstein.
Bohannon’s husband, Dr. Ken Bohannon, associate professor of music, also planned to come on board as director of the opera once it was finished. By using the USAO Opera Scenes class as the cast, the Bohannons found themselves ready to bring the libretto to life on stage.
“The main thrust of it is to try bring the knowledge of science to the fourth and fifth grade level,” Ken Bohannon said. “We wanted to try to communicate that and put it in a way that we could use our college students to present an opera that would be good for the audience and good for our students at the same time.”
All they needed was the music.
With the libretto finished, Julie Bohannon took Weber up on his original offer. An award-winning composer of more than 80 original works, Weber spent the summer filling out the opera by writing 11 new songs.
Weber said he had an upper hand as both a music professor and a composer.
“I have the luxury of knowing whom I’m writing for,” Weber said. “Not all composers know who their audience is going to be and who their performers are going to be. I knew who was going to be in the class, and I could tailor the writing to those students. If we needed a lot of high notes, I had students in mind who could sing those notes, and the same with low notes.”
Ironically, Weber never excelled at science.
“We’re doing a show about science concepts, which is a subject I was really bad at,” Weber said. “So as a kid, actually, during science class and the classes I wasn’t so good at, I’d make up music to go with the test. So it’s kind of ironic that I’m in this position to actually write an opera on science and look at it with a different perspective.”
An accomplished pianist in his own right, Weber also serves as accompanist for the opera.
Under the direction of Ken Bohannon, 11 USAO students play the parts of planets, the chorus and even Einstein himself. Unlike most operas, Weber said “Fieldtrip” is an ensemble opera.
“We took the text and divided things up into choruses and solos, which is typical of opera,” Weber said. “This is an ensemble opera, which means everyone sings together, and then there are solos interspersed. There aren’t any of these big, flashy arias for one person taking the stage.”
Cast members include Tulsa drama senior DeeDee Beard, Chickasha music senior Jonathan Benecke, Moore music senior Kristin Epperson, Oklahoma City music senior Josh Jaques, Chickasha business senior Kurt Jones, Henryetta music senior Lauren Martin, Dibble music senior Danyele Oxford, Bartlesville psychology freshman Mark Schlasner, Tulsa music freshman Elizabeth Sellers, Chickasha music senior Gina Beth Taylor and Kingfisher speech language pathology sophomore Kati Wint.
Julie Bohannon said that the opera is in the same vein of the 1970s TV shorts “Schoolhouse Rock!” in that the songs are both educational and catchy.
“The words of the songs are quite simple, but with Dr. Weber’s music, it may be difficult to get the songs out of your head,” she said. “Dr. Weber told me that our Opera Class students were singing the ‘Scientific Method Song’ in the USAO cafeteria recently. The song, sung as a round, is very simple but it will take hold of your brains!”
In addition to snappy tunes, the production features special effects. Fluorescent glowing planets, scenic maps and a giant quarter visually complement the music. In one scene, beautiful space nebulae are projected as a backdrop. John Morgan, co-writer of the opera, serves as technical director for the production.
Co-writer Jenese Snow said the writing trio, “the J crew,” designed the opera to be as educational as it is entertaining.
“They say that the work of children is play,” Snow said. “So what better way to teach them, than to show them all these crazy people getting up there and having so much fun with science? We’re hoping that teachers will be able to use this as a jumping off point, including it with units as they teach as another tool to reinforce what they’re doing in the classroom.”
Although Snow helped bring factual science into the opera, her investment was much more personal. A year ago, Snow’s husband was killed in a car accident. A science enthusiast, Dean Snow loved children and spoke of returning to school so he could teach science. Julie Bohannon emailed Jenese Snow shortly after with an idea.
“I have this crazy idea,” Bohannon said. “I want to do an opera, I want to do it for children, I’d like for it to be about science and I’d like to dedicate it to Dean.”
Snow said she was touched by the gesture.
“I think that’s just a beautiful way of honoring him and so much of what he was about,” Snow said. “He was this big, goofy, fun-loving guy who really got a kick out of anything quirky in science.”
True to form, the opera is dedicated in honor of Dean Snow.
Both performances are free and open to the public. More information is available from Julie Bohannon by phone at (405) 574-1290.