"Eco Opera" about Rachel Carson Premieres in Pittsburgh

  • Actors from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh workshop "A New Kind of Fallout" at the Carrie Furnaces, Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Photo: Opera Theater of Pittsburgh

July 17, 2015

This week, a new opera based on the life and work of environmentalist and Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson is making its world premiere. Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, which commissioned the work, is calling it the world’s first “eco opera.” Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which raised the alarm about the effects of the pesticide DDT, is the inspiration for the work. Librettist Tammy Ryan and composer Gilda Lyons recently talked with Kara Holsopple about the opera titled A New Kind of Fallout. Here are some highlights from the interview.

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On the story in A Different Kind of Fallout:

The women behind

The women behind "A New Kind of Fallout": Composer Gilda Lyons (left) and librettist Tammy Ryan. Photo: Kara Holsopple

“Alice Front, who is our main character, is newly married and newly pregnant. And she reads the first serialized article of Silent Spring in 1962. And this begins a journey for her where she’s concerned about the health of her baby. She’s read about how DDT was drifting through the environment and harming baby chicks while still in their shells; robins were dying because they weren’t reproducing. And she brings this up to her husband, who is an ad executive for a chemical company—Better Life Chemical—which is responsible for leading the backlash against Rachel Carson. And that’s what happened when Silent Spring first came out—the chemical companies rose up and tried to discredit her and her work. So that's the basic conflict.”

On the message of the opera:

"It was very important to write a story that wasn’t preaching. We’ve kept this story rooted in a human story. But it was definitely something that we were both aware of—that we were approaching this subject that could so easily be turned into something that was black and white. It’s not a simple story. DDT was used in an important way, and it did save lives. And Jack Front (her husband) says to Alice that there must be some good here in all this work that we’ve done. He’s so pained. He wants this all to be okay."

On the relevance of Carson’s story to today’s audiences:

"It’s not just about DDT. DDT was just the chemical she focused on. It’s about the poison soup that we’re all kind of living in. It’s like we’re in a snow globe full of everything in the ecosystem. It’s all in there and we’re swimming in it and breathing it in and eating it. And I think we’re reaching a tipping point. And one of the saddest things for me is that one of the things Rachel Carson was most worried about was what was happening to the oceans. She said we don’t want to acidify the oceans. And actually, that’s what’s happening now, which is connected to climate change. She talked about that too. Her book starts with the opening lines: It’s 'a fable for tomorrow.' And tomorrow is now."

A New Kind of Fallout opens Saturday, July 18 at the Twentieth Century Club in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.