INTERVIEW: Hai-Ting Chinn is ready to experiment in operatic ‘Science Fair’

Photo: Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments was written by and stars Hai-Ting Chinn. Photo courtesy of Kate Milford / Provided by Kathryn King Media with permission.


Science has been under attack as of late, but artists have taken up the fight to restore faith in the principles of hypothesis, experimentation and methodical thinking. Case in point: Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn is set to perform in Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments, a performance piece that is both unconventional and daringly original.

In the show, Chinn uses physical demonstrations and experiments to illuminate the wonderful word of science. Along the way, she sings a libretto created by scientists, namely an astronomer, chemist, particle physicist, middle school science teacher and science writer. Topics include everything from the formation of the solar system to the wondrous intricacies of an atom.

Science Fair was developed at HERE Arts Center in New York City, and it will receive a fully staged production Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Hudson Hall in Hudson, New York, as part of the Clarion Concerts — Leaf Peeper Series.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Chinn, who has previously performed with New York City Opera, The Wooster Group and American Symphony Orchestra, among other groups. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

How did the idea for Science Fair first come to you?

Like most children, I loved science, from dinosaurs to space travel. My mother was a mathematician and encouraged me to enter the fields of science or math, where women were especially underrepresented in her generation.

Though I didn’t go in to science as a profession, I never lost my love of scientific exploration, and I decided at some point that I wanted to celebrate the work of the scientists though my own area of expertise: classical music. Since music has been used throughout history to celebrate human endeavor of all kinds, by creating Science Fair, I hoped to promote the scientific worldview by sharing my own wonder and awe.

I also simply thought that it would be fun to throw together two things that people often shy away from as inaccessible: science and opera. What a weird combination, right? But I love them both, and I thought that the combination (with a good dose of humor thrown in) could be delightful and thought-provoking. If you can laugh about it or sing about it, it becomes just a little more accessible.

The original production of Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments was developed and produced in an artist in residence program at HERE Center for the Arts, in New York City’s SoHo (www.here.org).

Is singing about science particularly important in these current times?

It certainly is to me! When I first conceived of the show, in 2011, I wrote about it this way: ‘Science, at its finest, is an attempt to perceive and evaluate the universe in ways that surpass human senses and circumvent human prejudices. As bias and factionalism take over our political and social discourse, we must remember that we have other ways of interacting with the cosmos, the Earth and our fellow inhabitants of it.’

It saddens me to think that in the eight years since I wrote those words, the weight of bias and factionalism has only increased. To me, one of the most beautiful things about scientific thought is this: Since we base our understanding of the universe not on belief, but on evidence, we must actively seek out areas in which we may be wrong about something because only by discovering our errors can we advance our understanding.

In other words, being wrong is the best possible outcome because being wrong (and admitting it!) is the only way to get closer to the truth. How different this is from the way so many of us, all over the world, are hunkering down in separate political and cultural ditches. Climate change and its deniers are just one dire example.

I must admit that I don’t address such fraught socio-political issues head-on in Science Fair, but I hope that by highlighting the wonder, beauty, playfulness and perspective of science, I can slyly win over some hearts and minds!

Science is everywhere. It’s no longer the esoteric domain of the few: It’s all around us. It’s a new tool — a tool that reveals the universe beyond what our limited senses perceive: the very small, the very distant, the past, the potential future. It can show us how our biased brains misinterpret the information the comes in through our fallible senses. Science may dispel mythologies, but it shows us wonders that are awesome beyond our wildest imaginings.

What can audiences expect at the one-hour opera?

The label ‘opera’ is a bit of a shorthand — this is a two-person show (myself and pianist Erika Switzer) that might be equally well described a a cabaret of science. We made the libretto/lyrics in collaboration with working scientists, science writers and science teachers; I asked four of my favorite composers (Matthew Schickele, Renée Favand-See, Stefan Weisman, Conrad Cummings) to set them to music; we commissioned cute-but-clear slideshows from comic artists Maki Naro, and we treated scientific demonstrations like choreography to our science-based score.

Here’s the official blurb: Science Fair is an opera singer’s love-song to science. Conceived and performed by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, Science Fair uses physical demonstrations and experiments, a libretto created from the words of scientists, and original music to illuminate our current understanding of the natural world. Celebrating curiosities like the formation of our solar system, the structure of the atom and the ancient legacy of DNA, Science Fair pairs light-hearted humor with luscious operatic vocals to uplift the ordinary into the realm of wonder.

And I’ll leave further description to the professionals — here are some press quotes that I hope capture the spirit of our show!

‘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.’ — Helen Shaw, Time Out New York.

‘The accessible but never ingratiating music echoes the sense of wonder and wit that infuses Ms. Chinn’s performance, with spacious chords and swirling arpeggios underpinning her dark-hued mezzo.” — Corinna Da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times.

‘[A] 75-minute science demonstration that doesn’t waste a lyric in exploring natural phenomena. Chinn imbues everything — from a live experiment extracting DNA from a strawberry, to using her own powerful vocal chords to discuss sound waves — with a Tom Lehrer-like madcap humor and charm.” — Allison Meier, Hyperallergic.

Is it difficult to sing these science-heavy lyrics?

Not really — since the libretto is either written or molded by me, the words are fairly well engraved on my memory, and the challenge makes it fun. The music, on the other hand, is wide ranging and sometimes extremely difficult! (Did I mention that these are four of my favorite composers?)

Fortunately, I have an amazing collaborator in Erika Switzer, my pianist, music director and lab-partner. She both keeps me honest and covers my tracks when I miss a beat!

What exercises and routines do you perform to keep your mezzo-soprano voice sounding perfect each night?

In my own mind, my voice never sounds perfect! But, like in science, every imperfection is an opportunity to improve, right? I do find that getting enough physical exercise, not necessarily vocal exercise, is the most important routine for me. Aerobic exercise in particular seems to open up my lungs and make vocalizing immensely easier.

What do you hope for the piece after this run at Leaf Peeper?

My dream is to perform Science Fair at theatrical and concert venues around the world, and also at science conferences, conventions, universities, museums. I do have some performances lined up in April 2020, at the Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey. Please feel free to check my website, www.hai-ting.com, for further dates. And I hope some who see this concert will think of Science Fair for their venue, institution or event!

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments, written by and starring Hai-Ting Chinn, will play Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Hudson Hall in Hudson, New York, as part of the Clarion Concerts — Leaf Peeper Series. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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