Readers who have taken the time to google my web bio on the CMU Drama website will know that I have, for several years, taken a particular interest in finding, researching, and promoting theater and performance that deals with ecological issues. So I was particularly pleased when I learned that playwright Tammy Ryan had been commissioned by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh to write an eco-opera about the work and impact of Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring. Ryan’s collaboration with composer Gilda Lyons, A New Kind of Fallout, premiered this past week, under the direction of Opera Theater’s artistic director Jonathan Eaton. And it is (for me, at least) a new kind of opera, one that makes forceful connections between the ecological (non)decisions made by policymakers, corporate interests, and indifferent consumers a half century ago (which we now condemn with hindsight) and those we are collectively making in the present moment.
The opera tells the story of an ordinary middle class woman, Alice Front, at two stages in her life. Older Alice (Daphne Alderson) is in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. As she considers the poison coursing through her body that’s meant to save her, she flashes back fifty years, to a time when she first became aware of the toxic side effects of chemicals meant to make life “better.” We then see Young Alice (Lara Lynn Cottrill), in 1962, pregnant with her first child. She has been galvanized by Rachel Carson’s serialized writing in The New Yorker about the ecological and human health dangers posed by the widespread use of DDT as a pesticide, and wants to do something to stop it. Her husband, Jack (Christopher Scott), is an advertising executive at Better Life Chemicals, a company that manufactures the “miracle compound” Carson pinpointed as a poison to fish and birds. His job is to sell the public on the safety of this compound to humans – a job made complicated by Alice’s growing conviction that what is being sprayed on her home and yard will have the same harmful effects on the child growing inside of her as it does on baby chicks who “die in their shells.” When Alice is caught outdoors by surprise during aerial spraying of pesticide, she decides to take the company to court. She loses, but in the process her husband joins her side, and in the end, as the Older Alice succumbs to cancer, Young Alice prepares to bring their baby into the world.
Ryan uses this family-conflict plot to showcase Carson’s insight into the interconnectedness of all life on earth and to remind us that the battles Carson fought have by no means ended: they have merely shifted ground. After reading Carson’s warning that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” Young Alice sees clearly that whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves, and she makes the kinds of connections that those of us who are living here, in Pittsburgh, on interconnected waterways downstream from potentially poisonous hydraulic fracking sites, ought to be making too. “If it’s happening there, what’s happening here?” she sings, adding, later, “we’re all involved, whether we like it or not.” The jingles dreamed up by her husband and his pals to market their “miracle compound” share a sunny, blinding-to-the-consequences doublespeak with those Range Resources billboards we see all over town, particularly with regards to their emphasis on the economic benefits their “product” promises to bring to the community. By highlighting how utterly misleading and disingenuous those rhetorical strategies were fifty years ago, the opera urges a skepticism toward contemporary corporate claims to acting in the public’s best interest.
The production of the opera had a few odd quirks – notably, for a work that has biological processes as a central theme, Young Alice has one of the most unnatural pregnancies in history, progressing from having-just-discovered-she-is-pregnant to about-to-pop in a matter of days (at least, according to the supertitles). And if you did not take time to read the program, it was difficult to figure out the function of three figures representing The Earth, Science, and The Word (played by Fé Avouglan, Emily Jensen, and Victoria Fox). Small issues aside, Eaton made a number of production choices that gave added potency to the libretto. In particular, Chuck Beard’s projection design – which featured, in key moments, archival images depicting ads marketing DDT as well as photos demonstrating people blithely allowing themselves and their children to be fogged with it – underscored how easily we can be lulled into a false sense of safety. Confronted with such images, I wondered what my future grandchildren will think in fifty years when they see “historical” photos of those huge tanker trucks carrying contaminated fracking water off to be “disposed of” – will they think, as I did, “how could they not have suspected they were poisoning themselves?” (It would, however, have been great had Beard been given a larger canvas to work with, given the role these images played in the storytelling).
Cottrill gave a bravura performance as Young Alice – she has a powerful soprano voice that rose to heights of shiver-inducing passion. Alderson’s gorgeous alto made a beautiful counterpoint, especially in duets with Cottrill. The remainder of the ensemble was equally excellent, especially Avouglan, Jensen, and Fox as the three choral figures, Scott as the husband, and Desiree Soteres as the wife of one of Scott’s colleagues. As an admitted non-expert, I found Gilda Lyons’ score compelling and moving, and I took great pleasure in the variety of musical styles and motifs she mobilized for the storytelling; I will have to leave it to writers with more expertise in music to provide a more nuanced assessment.