Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Opera Singer Hai-Ting Chinn

Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn has made it a point of pride to experiment throughout her career. She has performed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, played the part of Miriam in the Moses-inspired video opera Mosheh, and performed with the Wooster Group in La Didione, which she described as "a cross between an opera and a sci-fi movie." So perhaps it was only a matter of time before her professional experimentation took a more literal approach. Last spring, Chinn premiered her opera Science Fair, which she described as "a science cabaret." Developed through New York's HERE Artist Residency Program—an incubator for cross-disciplinary projects—the show was a quirky, enlightening, and altogether unexpected vehicle for Chinn's dual interests in opera and science. While she sung the words of scientific texts, she also demonstrated live experiments, projected slideshows, and even wore a model of the solar system. To say the least, it was not your everyday Puccini. We recently chatted with Chinn about her first time as a production’s lead creator, her approach to making opera accessible, and how she hopes the piece will contribute to the contemporary canon.

NEA: How did the concept for Science Fair develop? Have you always had an interest in science?

HAI-TING CHINN: My mother is a mathematician. She spent a lot of her career when I was growing up promoting careers in math and science for young women, which in those days—the 70s—were even less equitable than they are today. So I grew up around that, and playing math games around the table, thinking about careers in science. My teenage rebellion was to go into the arts instead.

But I retained that strong feeling about women trying to make their voices known in those careers, and an interest in the scientific worldview, scientific discovery, and rational thinking. As I started having a career in music, I became the opposite of the physicist who's an amateur pianist: I was the opera singer who was an amateur scientist. For pleasure I read books about evolutionary biology and quantum physics. At some point, I started thinking that I wanted to contribute something. I started thinking what if I use this odd little corner of the world that I'm engaged in, and try and pair it with this other brainy esoteric thing that I'm interested in and see if I can come up with something that is interesting to a wider audience? That's where the concept for Science Fair developed, somewhere in that morass. 

NEA: You mentioned that opera and science are often considered esoteric. It also strikes me that they can both be incredibly intimidating. Did you consider that a challenge when creating this piece?

CHINN: I wanted to to make sure that the end product was neither of those things. But I felt pretty optimistic. At least in New York, there's a huge resurgence of science popularization, between the World Science Festival and Secret Science Club, and a lot of popular shows like Neil deGrasse Tyson's NOVA. So I knew that there was a great deal of interest in [science] right now.

From the opera side, I have done a lot of things over my career that are attempts to bring opera to a wider audience. One of the things I've become a little bit known for is [pieces that are] a little off the beaten path, a little wilder, a little more theatrical, a little more daring. Maybe you can call it opera popularization. There's definitely a sort of indie opera scene in New York. I like to think that my performance skills and style are more accessible than last century, stodgy, park-and-bark opera. I like to think that my career was already engaged in making opera into something that's not for some kind of rarefied elite.

NEA: What was your approach in terms of ensuring Science Fair would be accessible?

CHINN: In the science popularization world, there's a whole lot of humor and light-heartedness, and thoroughly geeky joking. It's been most popularized in things like The Big Bang Theory. If you can laugh at something, then it's immediately less intimidating. And at some point, I found myself saying, "If you can laugh about it, or sing about it, then you can relate to it. And when you can do both, maybe that's even more accessible."

Originally, I thought I was going to take extant science writings and set that to music in a way that art song usually works. I did that with a couple of writers who I found really beautifully lyrical; for instance, my favorite is Natalie Angier, who's been a New York Times science writer for many years. But in the end, I ended up interviewing a lot of scientists, and taking their spoken words and distilling them myself into lyrics. The language was a lot more colloquial, and I could use the natural spoken rhythm and the humor.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

CHINN: This was the first piece that I have actually created myself ever. I've been involved in a lot of collaborative things, and I really enjoy that kind of theater creation where the rehearsal room is a big playground and everyone's throwing out their ideas and creating a world together. But in this case, my process was created by the show and it developed as organically as the show itself.

I worked with four composers: [my husband] Matthew Schickele, Stefan Weisman, Renée Favand-See, Conrad Cummings. The one thing that they share is that they all approached lyrics in a way that I felt could be really easily understandable. While I was making lyrics for them, I was thinking about which of these musical voices matched with which scientist voice, or whatever lyric I was working on. In a number of cases, these were texts that were going to go with live demonstrations. For instance, the extraction of DNA from strawberries. So I commissioned a song then I worked with the composer on the timing so that I could sing the song and do the demonstration at the same time. It was like a live scoring, or a musical cooking show. Not all of the pieces were like that; some of them were more general celebrations of a topic or science. So it was a mish-mash. It turned into a kind of science cabaret.

NEA: Have you had much experience with cross-disciplinary work prior to Science Fair?

CHINN: Yes. I've always been interested in stretching myself as a performer and in agreeing to do pretty much anything that anyone asked me to try. I always want to try adding movement styles or technology. I worked with Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach, I worked with a choreographer on a modern dance and singing piece, I worked with Toni Dove on what was like a live-performed film. I'm currently performing with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bête. So had I worked on thing like this before? Yes. But then everything "like this" is completely different. But I do love stretching genres and stretching myself as a performer.

NEA: What was it like for you to work as a creator versus as a performer?

CHINN: I discovered how bad I am at a lot of things—at keeping my website updated, at social media, at fundraising. I have to say doing all of those things and creating and performing was an intense and ridiculous experience that I'm not sure I ever want to do again.

I loved it and I was really proud of the result, and I loved bringing my vision to life and having control over the final product. But at the same time, it's a different kind of stress to have that final control because you have that responsibility and accountability. It means that if something doesn't get done, you're the one who has to stay up all night and do it. And then you have to perform the thing in the morning. So I found it exhilarating and terrifying, but I’m not sure that I ever want to be the final, responsible person ever again. Then again, if someone offered me the opportunity, I'm sure I would jump at it.

NEA: Anything else to add?

CHINN: There is one more thing about Science Fair that I haven't mentioned yet. I'm a complete atheist, agnostic, non-religious person, even though I was raised Jewish and Bat Mitzvahed. Because I was raised Reform Jewish, and they teach you to question everything. And I did.

But I found myself in New York doing a whole lot of singing in churches or synagogues or at religious weddings singing big, mass settings with orchestra. And while I love a lot of that music—there's nothing greater than St. Matthew Passion—I know so many people who don't believe this stuff that we're singing. Yet we're uplifting it, we're celebrating it with our voices and our talents. I know all these people who are interested in rationalist ways of thinking and in the wonder of the universe the way we now understand it. All of that is wondrous, even the pure facts; they're awesome and they're awe-inspiring. So I wanted to contribute to the new canon. That's a huge part of the inspiration for Science Fair—to celebrate the wonder of scientific reality as far as we know it, and our ways of discovering it further.



Rebecca,Indeed, It's really a worth read on weekend. I just loved the way she answered 3rd and 4th question. I'm just planning to attend her next science fair.Could you please share the details? I look forward to your reply. Thank you! :~)

Submitted by Don Ball on

Glad you enjoyed the article. Please visit Hai-Ting Chinn's website for news about upcoming events.

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