A night at the opera – buzzing about bees

On this week’s podcast, we interviewed Lucy Yeomans, Kelvin Thompson and Dr. Mark Brown about the Royal Holloway Science Festival and the Silence of the Bees – A science opera.  Yesterday afternoon, having piqued our curiosity, James and I headed out to Egham to watch the premier of this science opera.

Now I am pretty sure that I fit neatly in the venn diagram overlap of ‘interested in science’ and ‘opera fan’ and so I think it is safe to say that I quite liked the opera.  James having slightly less familiarity with opera found it a bit hard to follow when the acoustics worked against the singers.  The auditorium that the opera was performed in was a lecture theatre (one that Dr. Mark Brown had lectured in) and not an auditorium that would normally be used for music performances. At times the the acoustics could be challenging either because of sound disappearing or the musicians overpowering the singers. However, most of the time everything was perfectly audible – it just makes it slightly harder to comprehend when it’s science and not an histrionic love story being sung.

I don’t know how the work compares to ‘modern opera’ as my experience is still firmly rooted in 18th and 19th century works.  However, it makes me more interested in seeing modern opera which I haven’t really been interested in before.

So what was it about.  In our interview – Kelvin explained that it would be unfair to say it didn’t have a plot, but it does have a point.  I think that is a really good summation.  Four of the six singers are actually a composite of one person – different aspects of her/his/their personality.  Each in turn try to explain to the other two characters the importance of the bees to the world, with varying degrees of success.  The exact structure of time and place isn’t really as important as the evolving discussion. In the end, all four elements of that person manage to convince the other two characters of the importance of the bees and why they should care.

Regardless of plot or point – the performers were absolutely amazing, particularly Danae Eleni representing ‘the Scientist’.  The particular highlight for me was the prologue and epilogue.  The ‘Communicator’ was sort of chanting the name of bees that were endangered or threatened and there was a very infectious cadence every time he went ‘bombus’ and the taxonomic name of the bee.  I’m pretty sure there was some timpani or something in there but I can’t remember exactly.  It was amazing!  I’m just glad it happened twice as each time I was just enthralled by how you can take a list of endangered bees and make it into an urgent and compelling composition.

I think with any kind of experiment like this, combing some hard core science with a medium that many people may not be comfortable with, people can dwell on the thing that didn’t work.  To a certain extent that was what the Q&A was about – as Royal Holloway saw this as part of the science festival and science engagement.  However, while I could mention some of the things that to me didn’t quite work – I think that would be rather disingenuous.  For an 1 hour opera that was put together in less than 9 months, with less than 3 weeks of rehearsal for the performers it was an amazing feat.  I imagine with more performances, some finessing would smooth out the bits that didn’t work so well. I imagine with another hour (if you were going to go for a full length opera) some of the more complicated bits could be given more time to make their point.

In the end though, it was enjoyable and I learned more about the plight of bees in that hour than I had ever before. It did that and made me wish there was an album to buy so I could listen to the epilogue and prologue again. So in terms of engagement, I think it was a success, at least for me – I want to see a modern opera and save the bees.

We’ll see if other science operas come into existence. I think such collaborations should be sought by universities – whether in our current climate that is possible is another thing. Royal Holloway was very adventurous and probably took a great risk with something like this and I hope it reflects well upon them. In an era where everything has to be ‘innovative’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’ Royal Holloway has done so with great aplomb and in a way that had me singing “Bombus da-da-dat da” all the way to dinner and looking up on to join the Bumblebee Conservation Trust after that.

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