Science Fair: An Opera with Experiments
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Science Fair: Review by Helen Shaw
If you have never seen the mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn—if you somehow missed the Wooster Group's La Didone and Yoav Gal's Mosheh—then you must dash to HERE to catch her. Chinn's exquisite voice, rippling with amusement, makes even contemporary anti-melody sound as natural and sweet as nursery rhyme, and her performances have always thrummed with the energy of her hummingbird brain—she can convey the thrill of thinking as she sings. Now, at last, that whizzing intelligence has made a work all for itself. Chinn's song cycle Science Fair sets various scientific explanations to music written by a brace of contemporary composers: Matthew Schickele, Stefan Weisman, Renée Favand-See and Conrad Cummings. (Schickele seems to have been the main collaborator, having worked on more than half the pieces.) As Chinn trills through songs about molecular recombination, audible harmonics and the formation of our own little solar system, she simultaneously demonstrates each scientific principle. This is what would happen if Bill Nye were possessed by Papagana from The Magic Flute.
Chinn and director Lisa Rothe take extraordinary care with every facet of the production: Science Fair gleams with polish. Tucked into a tiny space, Caite Hevner Kemp's library-cum-lab set glows like a jewel (Lucrecia Briceno did the lighting design); every interaction between Chinn and her pianist Erika Switzer has been choreographed precisely; adorable animations by Maki Naro help wth more complex bits (you will finally understand how detergents work). Chinn's infectious delight in each aspect of her project—whether her baking soda volcano or the fuzzy hat she wears to play the Sun—keeps us spinning with her, a kind of giddy intellectual whirl.
For all her warmth and mischief, though, Chinn is serious about the science. She graduates to more and more impressive laboratory feats, crescendoing to her pièce de résistance: the extraction of DNA from a strawberry. Poetry emerges in surprising places; for the radiantly gorgeous “Libration,” Schickele adapts texts from NASA's Goddard Space Center, and you might find yourself weeping quietly over orbital geometries. In all, it's an evening of nearly constant surprise. Opera and science can get an unfair reputation of ponderousness, but by joining the two—and twinkling at us like an ice planet at perihelion—Chinn converts both into pure, effervescent pleasure.—Helen Shaw
HERE (Off-Off Broadway). Conceived and performed by Hai-Ting Chinn. Texts by Chinn, Schickele, Marie Curie and others. Music by Matthew Schickele, Renée Favand-See, Stefan Weisman and Conrad Cummings. Directed by Lisa Rothe. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.