Tesla Is Not Just An Automobile . . .
In this time when renewable and sustainable energy and scientific innovation are on the top of the list of modern societal preoccupations, this past week the Opéra Comique in Paris presented the world premiere of Les Éclairs, a contemporary opera that was originally commissioned and had been scheduled to debut in 2020. Finally opening on November 2, 2021, Les Eclairs scintillated with the musical elegance and emotional significance that, to my mind, places it on an entirely new level above so many other contemporary, more minimalist and atonal compositions in the genre.
The story of Les Eclairs ( ‘Lightening' in English) is about the life of Nikola Tesla, a brilliant, prolific and visionary inventor to whom the world owes a large part of its technological, economic, and social development. The story was inspired by a biography of Tesla's life and emanated from the imagination and the pen of reknowned French author and librettist Jean Echenoz, who transformed his fictionalized biography, Des Eclairs, into an opera libretto in verse.
Philippe Hersant, to my ear one of the world's greatest living contemporary composers, wrote the stunning score. From this unusually golden collaboration between Echenoz and Hersant was born a nugget-of-an-opera, superbly
highlighted by the glittering baton of Ariane Matiakh, a young female music director with the charisma and style of Gustavo Dudamel, and the grace of Esa-Pekka Salonon. The brilliant staging by Clément Hervieu-Léger, was complemented by his mise en scene that included 14 individual and unusually dynamic sets.
The cast was superb and included a magnificent choir and complement of singers accompanied by the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra.
The action of this unique work placed me in the footsteps of Nikola Tesla (renamed Gregor in the opera) from his heroic landing in the United States in 1884 until his dead-end in New York in 1943. Tesla/Gregor, a complex character, was plagued by obsessional trends. He was both ambitious and naive. He longed for recognition, while his autistic character caused him to flee the closeness of both men and women. Tesla was a bit delusional and mostly oblivious to capitalist motives, although he surely had an attraction to luxury. His ambitions were aimed at the creation of affordable energy for all mankind. However, although his inventiveness was at first championed and supported by industrial magnets, he was eventually disheartened to find that, in America, only the dollar has any true value.
I witnessed the cruel conflict between Tesla and Thomas Edison, with his hegemonistic ambitions in the world of electricity. Rejected by Edison, Tesla developed an increasingly revolutionary
technologies with the financial support of entrepreneur Parker (who I would imagine is a character that stands for both Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan). But when he announces his desire to develop a universal and free source of energy, Parker drops Gregor/Tesla like a hot stone and leaves him penniless. Despite the friendship of the couple, Norman and Ethel Axelrod, Tesla is destitute and is robbed of due credit for all of his inventions. He finally takes refuge in the companionship of the pigeons of Central Park and the contemplation of the lightning that had presided over the skies under which he had been born. For Gregor, his birth on a dark night 'outside of time and light' was the start of a lifelong obsession with electricity that lasted until he ended his life.It is fitting that Les Elairs has it’s world premiere in the first Opera house to use electricity.
In a little over two hours, there are twenty-five distinct scenes that, much like a film, are linked together at a uninterupted pace without intermission. Les Éclairs also breaks with the somewhat static, contemplative, introspective character of Hersant's previous lyrical works (as he himself qualifies them). This opera simply sparkles and bubbles like the spirit of Tesla and the New York of this period. The score multiplies the composer's nods and winks to comic opera, the American musical, to jazz, to Irish music in a scene from the Offenbachian tavern, with central European folklore that references Tesla's Croatian origins. From beginning to poignant ending, Hersant's music pulsates with energy, vitality, vigor and sensitivity. On the black and white sets, the orchestra paints with a colorful sound palette that creates an atmosphere that renders the city of New York a character in its own right.
The vocal stage is incomparable as well, staring Jean-Christophe Lanièce, who is visibly very inspired by his character Gregor/Tesla. The young baritone takes obvious pleasure in illuminating the multiplicity of facets of his character that, and with his voice and gesture he renders Tesla all too credible and touching. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur plays an equally convincing
Ethel, served by a voice whose warm autumnal colors paint a tender and melancholy portrait of herself as Gregor's older but loving admirer. And in a discreet light the tenor François Rougier subtly surrounds the generous character of Norman.
The role of Betty, the first female journalist in New York, is filled with an amazing sense of candor and freshness created by the exquisite voice and acting abilities which are perceptible thanks to the agility and delicacy of soprano Elsa Benoît, who is truly the vocal embodiment of the birds that are omnipresent throughout the story.
With his superbly projected baritone, Jérôme Boutillier slips with conviction into the costume of Parker, the archetype of the
enthusiastic industrialist, and the kind of villain we love to hate. As for Edison, baritone André Heyboer excels at giving him all the attributes of a wicked and cynical megalomaniac without abandoning the humor - oftentimes black - that permeates this entire work.
In the choral parts, the rich sound of the Ensemble Aedes is exemplary of accuracy and cohesion. Clément Hervieu-Léger's staging cements the balance of this operatic super-structure that beguiled the audience as much by its beauty as by its coherence, integrity and originality. The action was compact and quick, but it smoothly unfolded without a note of disharmony, except in the scene of the electrocution during which Edison, wanting to discredit Gregor/Tesla, sadistically experiments with his electric chair on a death row inmate. The changes of scenery were made subtly if within sight, with the backdrop of a New York City, whose buildings can be seen evolving. To this black and white universe, Aurélie Maestre and Caroline de Vivaise's add female costumes, which evolve over the years and with the lights by Bertrand Couderc, they bring a contrasting bits of color.
Perhaps, in part because Elsa Benoît -- whom I'd met when she gave a recital at a soiree for the Paris Friends of the Munich Opera --had generously arranged for us to attend rehearsals, discussions
with the composer and the lyricist, a conversation with the set director, as well as a zoom conversation with herself and her leading man, topped off with second row tickets for the third performance of the opera, that was followed by a soiree where champagne facilitated casual conversations with the stars of the Opera -- I am especially inspired to write about this extraordinary new opera, produced by geniuses about a genius, in an attempt to share with as many people as I can what I believe to be a highly creative representation of brilliance, madness, and our society, one that will hopefully go on to become a classic well beyond my lifetime.
If only I could reach out to Elon Musk to encourage him to lend philanthropic support for such a project to be brought to the United States and to be staged, especially in New York, where it takes place, and in Los Angeles. It would definitely bring Musk down to earth in the public eye and higher in their esteem, and might lend some first class publicity to the automobiles that bear the name of that genius that was Tesla.
I can envision the latest models of Musk's Tesla displayed outside the Metropolitan Opera and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion! Maybe, if any of my readers have a connection with Musk or someone who is connected to him, and if you feel inspired by my account of this superb piece of art, it would be wonderful if you would share this post.
Next time, I look forward to sharing with you other sources of inspiration for this immigrant to a foreign country -- all those events, places and people who inspire this writer.
Perhaps you will share something that inspires you to be creative in some way?