Science

How locust ecology inspired an opera

Locust: The Opera finds a novel way to doom a soprano: species extinction.

The libretto, written by entomologist Jeff Lockwood of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, features a scientist, a rancher and a dead insect. The scientist tenor agonizes over why the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct at the dawn of the 20th century. He comes up with hypotheses, three of which unravel to music and frustration.

The project hatched in 2014. “Jeff got in his head, Oh, opera is a good way to tell science stories, which takes a creative mind to think that,” says Anne Guzzo, who composed the music. Guzzo teaches music theory and composition at the University of Wyoming.

The Melanoplus spretus locust brought famine and ruin to farms across the western United States. “This was a devastating pest that caused enormous human suffering,” Lockwood says. Epic swarms would suddenly descend on and eat vast swaths of cropland. “On the other hand, it was an iconic species that defined and shaped the continent.” an illustration of a locust swarm devouring a wheat field Lockwood had written about the locusts mysterious and sudden extinction in the 2004 book Locust, but the topic “begged in my mind for the grandeur of opera.” He spent several years mulling how to create a one-hour opera for three singers about the swarming grasshopper species.

Then the ghost of Hamlets father, in the opera “Amleto,” based on Shakespeares play, inspired a breakthrough. Lockwood imagined a spectral soprano locust, who haunted a scientist until he figured out what killed her kind.

To make one locust soprano represent trillions, Guzzo challenged her music theory class to find ways of evoking the sound of a swarm. They tried snapping fingers, rattling cardstock and crinkling cellophane. But “the simplest answer was the most elegant,” Guzzo says — tasking the audience with shivering sheets of tissue paper in sequence, so that a great wave of rustling swept through the auditorium.

For the libretto, Lockwood took an unusually data-driven approach. After surveying opera lengths and word counts, he paced his work at 25 to 30 words per minute, policing himself sternly. If a scene was long by two words, hed find two to cut.

a composite photo with composer Anne Guzzo on the left and entomologist Jeff Lockwood on the right He wrote the dialogue not in verse, but as conversation, some of it a bit professorial. Guzzo asked for a few line changes. “I just couldnt get manic expressions of fecundity to fit where I wanted it to,” she says.

Eventually, the scientist solves the mystery, but takes no joy in telling the beautiful locust ghost that humans had unwittingly doomed her kind by destroying vital locust habitat. For tragedy, Lockwood says, “there has to be a loss tinged with a kind of remorse.”

The opera, performed twice in Jackson, Wyo., will next be staged in March in Agadir, Morocco.