"Bringing the World Home" Lecture Series featuring Grethe Barrett Holby and The Three Astronauts
by Charlotte Force
The Three Astronauts – A Space Opera is based on a children’s book come to life in intricate and thoughtful splendor. The science and enchantment of the opera is folded in layers of artistry: from the direction, to the writing, to the comedy. The opera has been built up by a dedicated team, led by Grethe Barrett Holby: director and concept creator. The process of writing, composing, performing, and producing an opera is what Grethe Barrett Holby, as our guest lecturer, exposed to us in the January installment of LaGuardia’s lecture series, “Bringing the World Home”. The opera is based on Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi's The Three Astronauts, a gorgeous children’s book following the space-trekking footsteps of an American astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut, and a Chinese taikonaut – three Earthlings on their way to Mars. Collaboration started on this labour of love in April 2013, and the libretto (opera jargon for script) has been finalized. At LaGuardia High School, we were privileged enough to have a part of the opera performed for us in its early stages. This opportunity allowed us to attest to the creation of an opera. As we discovered these new facets of the art form, Ms. Holby shared with us valuable lessons; these, to use as artists, and as humans – small, and looking to make giant leaps (maybe even all the way to Mars).
Ms. Holby found The Three Astronauts in a bookstore in 1989, and brought it home to read to her children. It left a huge mark on her – so much so that she decided to write an opera about it. As she recounted her first encounter with the story, she said: “If I could tell you why it had such a huge impact on me, I might not be making this opera. I guess I’m making it in order to understand it. Artists always do that; they create in order to articulate and discover things.” This piece of wisdom was one of the many that she shared over the course of the lecture. The four most important things, she said, when making a new opera or any piece of art based on a pre-existing property, are: firstly, always start by getting the rights to the work if it is not your own – don’t take someone’s word for it, get it signed on a piece of paper. The second piece of advice was: build your team with people you like, trust, and whose work you like. The third piece of advice was, she said, the most delicate and trickiest to accomplish: always get a letter of agreement (LoA) from the people you are working with before you start anything – there needs to be a total understanding of the situation. Lastly, bring in producers and the rest of the full team as early as possible – you can’t complete an opera, or anything, all by yourself, and should always have help at hand.
These ideas do not only apply to opera – they are not even only restricted to music or theater. In any creative or collaborative process, the ideas outlined by Ms. Holby create the best environment for producing ideal results. In a school like LaGuardia, that gathers thousands of students in a home where they can pursue their talents for three or more hours a day, advice like this is our bread and butter. The big question faced by artists is: “How can I successfully pursue my passion?” As teenagers, we are mostly exposed to two stages of professional life: our own, and our parents’. The area in between, in which we must work to create stability and attain success, is a grey area full of uncertainty. That is where the value of these lectures lies: in giving us advice, stemming from personal and professional experience. Ms. Holby and our past lecturers at LaGuardia have given us tools to help us navigate the next step in our lives.
These lectures, valuable as they are, are made possible by our principle, Dr. Mars, and of course the Coordinator of Student Activities, Mr. Singh. The organization that goes into these events is incredible: setting up sound equipment, chairs, food, and logistics, is all a lot of work. However, the result is always astounding, thanks not only to the great lecturers themselves, but also thanks to the wonderful efforts of Mr. Singh and everyone else involved.
However, the special case of this lecture is that LaGuardia’s involvement did not stop at the laying of tables and setting out of chairs. A group of LaGuardia students, led by Mr. Singh, actually helped flesh out the science behind this operatic space adventure. These students are Hannah Krutiansky, Tucker Loftus, Josh Bell, Joshua Nodiff, Emily Dinkelaker, Julia Gorlovetskaya, Usha Houiex, Alexandra Kyriakides, and Ariella Mandel. Ms. Holby, a former LaGuardia parent, thought of her friend Mr. Singh as she was collaborating on the libretto, and thought she’d ask for his help fleshing out science. She brought a draft of the libretto to LaGuardia, and had Mr. Singh’s students pose questions about it. This process helped pinpoint the unclear elements behind the science of the plot, and added a new facet to the creation of this opera: an opportunity for education. A consultant from The Santa Fe Opera suggested that interactive videos about the science, technology and engineering be available in the lobby of the performance venue for use by the audience members, before, at intermission, and after the performance, and later online. It’s a level of audience and community engagement that keeps the performance alive and growing long after the curtain has come down. It is the Mars Team from LaGuardia that have begun to make examples of how to make these videos fun and engaging, to help the audience experience the wonder and creativity and fun of science, and not only the facts. Mr. Singh’s AP student Mars Team researched, calculated, planned, animated, edited, and recorded the videos all themselves, on topics such as solar flares and routes to travel between Earth and Mars.
The best part is that these videos are creative and entertaining. The very same group that posed questions about the libretto came together after school over a period of two months and created a series of videos answering the questions they’d once had. This wonderful series of educational and entertaining films was then made even more accessible by means of an app! The LaGuardia students created an application, called “OccupyMars”, which consolidates their videos and all sorts of information about the Red Planet relevant to The Three Astronauts.
The science, however, is just one side of the opera. The beauty of this creative medium is the depth of the pieces – all the facets that combine to make an opera sparkle like a diamond. There are many other processes involved in making an opera. The first that comes to mind, of course, is the singing – this gets divided into two pieces. First, is the words, then, is the melody. The libretto is now finished, and the melody is the in the works. However, this opera has a unique element to tackle: it is an international story, featuring distinct characters, each from nations with singular personalities. Here is where another one of the fascinating aspects of this opera surfaces: a writer and composer from each astronaut’s country wrote the part for their respective astronaut. The brains behind America’s representation are Yusef Komunyakaa (writer), and Tomas Doncker and Daniel Bernard Roumain (who have contributed three tracks to the opera). Representing Russia are Dimitry Glukhovsky (writer) and Alexander Tchaykovskiy (composer). This opera’s ambassadors of Chinese culture and music are Liu Sola (writer) and Ye Xiaogang (composer). Finally, the alien of the opera has its own writer - Linguist-Anthropologist Daniel L Everett, who knows as much as one can know about what it’s like to interact with an “alien”. He spent 10 years immersed in the culture of an Amazonian tribe which has almost no contact with the outside world. Using the knowledge he gained from this experience, and his professional expertise, a language and culture for the alien is being created as well. (Currently, composer Vijay Iyer has said he is interested in writing the music for the Martian and Mars.) As Ms. Holby puts it: “The team for 3 astronauts is just extraordinary.”
There was great importance in having all of the nations (and planets) represented in the writing. Ms. Holby shared with us an anecdote, about a query she’d had about the libretto. In the beginning of the opera, we see the American astronaut, Theodore Anderson (played by Matthew Gamble), being interviewed on television (the TV Interviewer was played by CBS news correspondent Alexis Christoforous, a LaGuardia alum and the second lecturer in the series). Ms. Holby had asked Dimitry why the Russian astronaut was not interviewed on TV as well. He replied “In Russia, we NEVER! speak about personal things in interviews”. He’d looked at her as if she was “speaking in another language,” she recounted, which added meaning to her advice in the beginning of the lecture: the team you create to make a project is deeply important. Here, it was important to the opera’s factual integrity. If she hadn’t understood the value of collaborating with other cultures, that monumental cultural difference could have been completely overlooked. The anecdote, of course, was met with laughter by the audience – but it illustrated something very valuable for Ms. Holby to share.
Another important aspect in writing an opera, more specifically, is the composition of lyrics, and stringing together of words. There is so much room for expression in an opera – this is what drew in Ms. Holby, an MIT graduate who never expected to make a career in opera, of all things. The Three Astronauts takes full advantage of the potential writing creates for expression. Each writer from a different country had something distinct to contribute. Holby characterized Komunyakaa as the poet of the group, Dimitry, a science fiction author, and the storyteller of the group, and Sola as the imagination of the group. Ms. Holby comically recounted how during the writing process, Sola, who admittedly, had been jet-lagged, would keep them on their toes with wild and creative suggestions for plot elements and artistic direction. She even recounted once that Sola suggested the alien should be invisible… and that Earth water should just pass through it. The writing process certainly sounded fun!
Komunyakaa was actually present at the lecture, which was a huge honor for us, given that he is an incredibly gifted, Pulitzer Prize winning Poet . He is a poet, which was not only felt in the lyrics from the libretto he read to us, but in the way he spoke. It’s always humbling to listen to someone speak freely in such a purely beautiful way.
Ms. Holby asked Komunyakaa how he feels when his poetry is put to music, as in the case of The Three Astronauts. He replied: “Language is music and the body is an amplifier… it becomes an enabler of motion and sort of expands the meaning of the lyrics past speech… one has to trust one’s collaborators with the spirit of the whole piece… and that involves transformation.” As a poet myself, a writer, an artist, and generally: a human being, I found this comment to be both beautifully put, and profoundly true. It is a transformation to allow someone else to adopt and interpret your work – but as seen in the case of The Three Astronauts, this kind of collaboration creates beautiful results. Collaboration is a process which any artist can grow from; the collaboration between countries, people, and even with our own LaGuardia students, is what makes this opera particularly special. Glimpsing into the creation of this work of art was a learning experience, as well as a simply artistic joy.
Grethe Barrett Holby is the head of Ardea Arts/The Family Opera Initiative which has made this opera possible.