April 20, 2016
Right away the room takes us back to middle school science class. Tall shelves frame each side of a chalkboard and are decorated with beakers and bins, even a dinosaur skeleton. Two women settle into the space – Erika Switzer as the pianist and Hai-Ting Chinn as the lead performer or, perhaps more accurately, the professor.
Chinn spent the last three years developing Science Fair, directed by Lisa Rothe. Described as “an opera with experiments,” the dynamic between the two is far from organic. Instead, the performance reads as a science lecture that happens to be delivered in song. Intermittent theatrical moments are a bit clichéd as an overall “Schoolhouse Rock!” feel overwhelms.
American mezzo-soprano Chinn starts off strong, highlighting her impressive voice. Soon the scientific content of the lyrics take precedent, however, and the original score and operatic elements of the performance fade into the background. Throughout, we witness the classic baking soda volcano, learn about the wave-particle duality of matter, delve into atomic orbitals, and get a refresher course on DNA molecules—which involves the actual extraction of DNA from strawberries.
At one point there’s a literal nod to the artistic as Chinn sings, “But we’re in the business of art, so we’ll make a metaphor.” And at times this metaphorical approach succeeds, particularly when tackling the concept of the universe’s history. We’re told one strike of a piano key equates 17 million years and watch as the numbers projected on a screen slowly decrease, approaching the creation of the earth and human life. As other experiments continue on alongside the countdown, it visually and metaphorically emphasizes the extent of time passed. The final note of the piano is the most poignant, representing the entirety of human history.
It cannot be denied that as an educational tool, Science Fair holds great value. It delivers a surprising breadth of knowledge in only seventy-five minutes time thanks to Chinn’s ongoing research and the fact that the libretto was created in tandem with science educators. In fact, Chinn welcomes scientific peer review in an effort to present as educationally accurate material as possible.
The world premiere of Science Fair is a HERE Resident Artist Production.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Jenny Thompson