Opera singer Hai-Ting Chinn often found herself hired to perform works that celebrated religion and art, but never science. She’s changing that dynamic with her show, Science Fair, which brings together her profession and her passion into one presentation, to be performed at the Daniels Art Center at Simon’s Rock, on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m.
“I’m a fan girl of science,” she explained.
Chinn’s mother was a mathematician, the first woman to get an advanced mathematics degree at Harvard, who devoted her life to encourage young women to go into STEM fields, holding workshops to get them excited about it.
“I grew up with that and also with math games around the dinner table, so I certainly wasn’t afraid of math and science,” Chinn said. “I went into music as a profession in college and after, and I found science again through popular science books and I became the opposite of the person who’s an amateur musician — I became a professional musician who is an amateur scientist.”
Chinn’s desire was to create a work that celebrates the role science plays in our culture, something that became personal to her especially in the contrast she noticed between her professional work and her personal life. Chinn often talks about science casually with friends, it’s just a part of her life, but as a classical musician, she noticed that science did not have the same hold in her craft as religion and art do. Chinn wished for something that would reflect culture’s embrace of the importance of science.
“I thought, why don’t I contribute to a new canon of classical music that celebrates science?” she said.
Chinn commissioned four composers — her husband Matthew Schickele, Bard Early College teacher Stefan Weisman, Renée Favand-See and Conrad Cummings — to join her on the project, and set about doing the research for the lyrical content. This included interviews with scientists, as well as distilling information from videos, podcasts and books.
Some of the scientists whose words ended up in the libretto are author Nathalie Angiers, astronomers Phil Plait & Pamela Gay, the NASA Goddard Flight Center, Marie Curie and physicists Lisa Randall and Debbie Berebichez. The project was supported by a three-year residency at the HERE Art Center in Soho.
“A lot of it is quite humorous,” Chinn said. “It’s inspired by Tom Lehrer or They Might Be Giants, and TV shows like Bill Nye’s early work and watching Mr. Wizard and Mythbusters, things like that. Put all those things in a pot, opera and basic science and silliness and humor and celebrating things that are really cool and beautiful.”
The show itself takes multi-media to a new level. There is live music and video, as well as illustrations by cartoonist and Popular Science blogger Maki Naro, whose work is used to create comics versions of educational videos to accompany Chinn’s performance. Chinn is joined on stage by her musical director, Bard conservatory professor Erika Switzer, who functions as pianist and lab assistant. It’s rare enough to attend a performance that includes classroom lab experiments on stage, but it’s even more unusual for the explanation of those experiments to be made operatic.
“I’m going to do a classroom DNA extraction that is completely put to music,” said Chinn. “It’s as though you were watching a classroom demonstration extracting the DNA from strawberries, but the lesson is sung. I did practice it a lot but more the thing that was really fun and cool and different was that I had to get the composer to compose around the timing of the science, so we scored a scientific experiment.”
Chinn uses other uses other methods, like outrageous fashion, to further communicate science topics in performance.
“There’s a song about the formation of the solar system in which the solar system is a hoop skirt I’m wearing,” she said. “When I thought of it, I described it to myself as the nerdiest burlesque ever.”
Chinn’s hope is to present a spectrum of science, a survey of basic concepts that can be appreciated on their own terms or taken further and applied to knowledge already accrued. It’s opera as a foundation of scientific knowledge that the audience can rediscover and take with them on new investigations if they choose. As Chinn puts it, she decided to bring together “a smattering of basic concepts in science” and work them into a “cabaret of science.”
“You can have the basic concepts illuminated right there in a song in not too many words and in a way that hopefully just makes you go, ‘I remember that from third grade and it’s so cool but I haven’t thought about it since then,’ or ‘Oh, I never thought of that maybe I should go home and think about it,’ or just ‘Oh yeah DNA so amazing!’” Chinn said. “That was my aim, just to make people laugh, make people learn, make people think, all the while singing, because that’s what I do. It’s just me doing what I do and celebrating what I love, and that other people love, too.”