Using Rachel Carson to Address Ecological Issues Through Opera

Feb 27, 2015

Daphne Alderson, left, and Lara Lynn Cottrill, portray the same character, Alice, at different stages in her life during a matinee performance of, "A New Kind of Fallout." The opera inspired by Rachel Carson is produced by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.
Credit Mark Abramowitz / Opera Theater of Pittsburgh

In an attempt to both re-brand what opera can offer and what it can teach, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is developing an opera it has dubbed an, Eco-Opera.

“This whole notion that opera, sometimes is branded as an elitist art form, and very often the subject matter, and the medium, look back into old European works and there’s a strong sense of visiting a sort of musical theatrical museum when you go to the opera. That’s not the way we want it to be,” said the company’s artistic and general director, Jonathan Eaton.

The drama “A New Kind of Fallout,” inspired by the works of the Pittsburgh innovator, Rachel Carson, will open July 18 during the fourth Summer Fest season.

Between now and then, the organization will take advice from the public during four free pre-season public workshops. The first workshop is scheduled for Saturday at The Phipps Conservatory. The workshop locations are significant either to the environment, like Phipps, or a nod to Rachel Carson's life such as her alma mater, Chatham University.

Eaton said he hopes to mold the drama based on the feedback they receive, but also use the workshops to teach the public about the art form of opera.

“When you get it right, opera’s incredible. It’s a combination of the best of all of the art forms; music, drama, visual art, dance. It’s terrific when it works, and when it doesn’t it’s just really boring.

“We’ve come up with the term, an ‘Eco-Opera’, because we think the subject matter is really important. And all of the new opera’s we’re going to commission from now on are going to involve hot button topics, subjects of real importance to our audience of American people here in America today," he said. 

Because so much of Rachel Carson’s life is copywritted, Eaton said the opera couldn’t be directly about her life, but it has clear references and quotations from her testimony to the Senate Committee.

In the opera, a pregnant woman reads Silent Spring and discovers that when DDT was sprayed across America, baby chicks were killed in their eggs. She fears DDT will hurt her unborn baby.

She confronts her husband who is the advertising director for the chemical company making DDT. Their town in Pennsylvania is sprayed with DDT, so she takes on her husband’s company in court.

Eaton said the opera implies there are lasting effects of chemicals and it challenges people to take on big business.

“So I think this is an attempt to both, you know, bring a medium – opera – up to date, but to do so in a way that tackles a subject that is of vital importance to all of us,” he said.