Tesla, recorded

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla

Violet Fire, the opera about Nikola Tesla that I worked on as librettist with composer Jon Gibson, is finally getting a studio recording! It’s a little late — the world premiere and U.S. premiere happened in Belgrade and New York in 2006 — but I’m still excited. Last week, Jon convened a stellar group of musicians at a recording studio in Brooklyn to lay down tracks for the recording.

Jon Gibson, Gregory Purnhagen, Dean Sharenow
Jon Gibson looking over score, left; singer Gregory Purnhagen, center; recording engineer Dean Sharenow, right

I was able to sit in one day as the solo singers recorded their parts. They included Scott Murphree, who played our original Tesla; Peter Stewart, our original Mark Twain; Solange Merdinian, as Tesla’s friend Katharine Johnson; Gregory Purnhagen, as the Reporter; Katie Zaffrann as Margaret Storm; and Marie Mascari as the White Dove. The great Mick Rossi led the recording as music director and conductor.

Scott Murphree as Tesla
Scott Murphree, singing the part of Tesla

Each character in the opera is there to show a different facet of Tesla’s life, from the most intimate to the most public. Mark Twain, who sensed the magnitude of the inventor’s breakthroughs in alternating current and wireless transmission, sings in praise of his accomplishments and global influence, while the Reporter offers commentary on Tesla’s waxing and then waning fame. Katharine Johnson sings plaintively to her “dear and silent friend” who, devoted to his work, seems to have “no human needs.” Married to the writer and editor Robert Johnson, Katharine hosted Tesla at many dinner parties. Her eloquently emotional letters to him reveal a deep but one-sided attachment to the inventor.

The real Margaret Storm wrote a book, The White Dove, that gave the opera its name: in it, she described Tesla as “Prince of the Violet Fire,” and told of his being born on Venus and then transported to Earth to offer his otherworldly knowledge to humanity. And the character of the White Dove is inspired by a pigeon that Tesla, late in life, admitted to loving and caring for in the parks of New York. The opera took form around the sense that this bird should be allowed to sing.

Marie Mascare as the White Dove
Marie Mascari, singing the role of the White Dove

It was wonderful to hear Jon’s music brought to life again by these great singers and musicians. In the sinuous melodic lines and sliding chords, I hear the sadness woven in with Tesla — not just from his self-imposed human isolation. When Scott Murphree, as Tesla, sang the line “An end to suffering…,” it carried both Tesla’s grand, global-scale ambitions, and also the failure to achieve them that would inevitably follow. Then there’s this line sung by the Reporter, taken near-verbatim from a poignant headline in the New York World: “At night and in secret, Nikola Tesla lavishes his love on pigeons.” Great explosions of energy, secret communion with birds, otherworldly visions — all these things are part of Tesla, and they’re all in the opera, realized through Jon’s beautiful music.

After the tracks are edited, a recording of Violet Fire should be available — soon, I hope. I’ll let you know.

Originally published at Miriam Seidel.