The genre of science fiction is associated with the modern world but dates back for centuries. Haydn’s opera Life on the Moon was first performed in 1777 and with a plot involving a – faked – journey to the Moon has been described as one of the first sci-fi operas. Ahead of ETO’s tour of Life on the Moon this October and November, we’ve beamed up eleven more examples of opera’s forays into science fiction.
Janáček – The Makropulos Affair
The plot of Janáček’s opera was written between 1923 and 1925, based on a play by Karel Čapek (the Czech playwright who would introduce the word ‘robot’). The opera’s plot centres on a potion that bestows everlasting youth on its central character Emilia – at the cost of exhausting her to such an extent that a natural death eventually comes as a relief.
Janáček (again) – The Excursions of Mr. Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century
Like Il mondo della luna, the second Janáček opera on our list features travel to the moon – but as seen through the visions of a drunken landlord. In the second act Mr Broucek is again transported, but this time in time – so that through the medium of alcohol he witnesses a vision of medieval Prague.
Stockhausen – Licht
Stockhausen’s monumental cycle of operas explores the seven days of the week in richly symbolist, mythological terms on a truly vast scale. The cycle has no beginning or end, takes over 29 hours to perform and calls for instrumental forces including orchestras, choirs, dancers and (in)famously four helicopters in Mittwoch aus Licht.
Max Richter – Sum
Max Richter’s chamber opera Sum, first performed in 2012 at Covent Garden, is based on neuroscientist David Eagleman’s bestselling collection of short stories exploring multiple possibilities of what the afterlife might entail.
Laika the Spacedog, of course!
No list of science fictional operas would be complete without ETO’s own contribution to the genre. Laika the Spacedog, the multi-award-winning 2013 opera for children and families, tells the story of the first dog in space. Whilst in real life the Russian capsule carrying Laika was never designed to support her for more than a few days, and still less to bring her back safely, in ETO’s version she lives on in spirit to greet the first men landing on the Moon in 1969.
Lorin Maazel – 1984
One of the darkest science fiction operas is Lorin Maazel’s 2005 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Maazel goes against operatic convention by casting a baritone as Orwell’s hero Winston Smith, and making a tenor sing the role of his antagonist, the smiling torturer O’Brien.
/U/ enjoys the perhaps dubious distinction of being the first (and only) opera written entirely in Klingon, the fictional language of the eponymous race from the Star Trek TV and film series. In case you’re wondering how to say the title, /U/ is pronounced as a ‘letter U with a glottal stop both before and afterwards’.
Offenbach – Le voyage dans la Lune
Offenbach’s 1875 operetta is loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon, and sees its central characters hurled to the Moon in a giant cannon shell. In an ironic nod to scientific scepticism about the possibility of lunar life, Offenbach’s sélènites or moon-dwellers are astonished when the shell arrives on their world, as their own science had previously proved that the Earth is uninhabited.
Tippett – New Year
Tippett’s opera New Year was premiered in 1989. Its plot moves between the two worlds of ‘Somewhere and Today’ and ‘Nowhere and Tomorrow’, and features a spaceship containing time travellers from the future.
Tod Machover – VALIS
This ‘electronic opera’ was adapted by American composer Tod Machover from Philip K. Dick’s trilogy of VALIS novels, in which paranoia from mental illness and drug abuse is combined with a secret conspiracy about an alien space probe orbiting the Earth, all leading to the revelation that the next Messiah has arrived.
Philip Glass – The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five
Philip Glass’s work has often covered scientific subjects, and his operatic output includes works about the astronomers Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. This 1997 opera is based on a science fiction novel by Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing set in an imagined Earth surrounded by six Zones with wildly differing characteristics and systems of government, from the utopian egalitarianism of Zone Three to the violent barbarism of Zone Five.