Monday, December 10, 2012

Puccini's Tosca: The parallels of exploration in opera and science

A few weeks ago, @forestdim and I ventured to the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, armed with tickets to see Giacomo Puccini's Tosca.

The weather was perfect, our seats were fabulous. There was even a balcony where we could stroll and gaze across the city. The San Francisco Opera House isn't the most elaborate venue I've ever visited, but the interior has a certain subtle opulence that I certainly enjoyed. I instantly fell in love with the Art Deco chandelier:

Can I take this home?

If you're not familiar with Tosca, here is the summary from the SF Opera website:
Puccini's masterful melodrama is a sexually charged, edge-of-your-seat thriller, in which a great singer, a rebellious painter and a corrupt police chief engage in a deadly test of wills.
I laughed when I read that, because it sounds exactly like an overhyped scientific press release. Tosca definitely wasn't my favorite opera. Its one of these productions where there are mostly only one or two people on stage, and the plot moves as fast as a daytime soap opera (read: excruciatingly slow). The storyline goes like this:

The painter Cavaradossi (who's in love with famed singer Tosca) helps hide his escaped convict friend Angelotti. Stereotypically evil Baron Scarpia (who lusts after Tosca) puts Cavaradossi in jail with no evidence and sets up Tosca to think Cavaradossi is cheating. Knowing that Tosca must know something, Scarpia uses Cavaradossi's capture/torture as leverage to get Tosca to tell him where Angelotti is hiding (Cavaradossi's villa outside time). But by the time Scarpia sends his men, Angelotti has committed suicide. Scarpia says Tosca must give herself up to him in order to save Cavaradossi's life (cue famous aria here)--she agrees, Scarpia writes a "simulated" execution order and a note for Tosca to have a safe passage out of the city. Just as Scarpia is about to have his way with Tosca, she kills him with a knife. He takes forever to die, and she takes forever to leave the stage afterwards. Then she leaves to go find Cavaradossi, who is awaiting execution on the rooftop of the jail, and tell him of the plan for a simulated execution and their subsequent flight to freedom. They sing hopeful and happy prose. But then Cavaradossi's execution turns out not to be fake after all--he really dies--and then Tosca, wallowing in grief, kills herself by jumping off the roof. The end.

The orchestra warms up as we take our seats

So basically, everyone dies. Very slowly and dramatically. This storyline goes on for 2 hours and 40 minutes and is split into 3 acts. By the third act, I just wanted the show to be over.

I've enjoyed opera for decades (my early love of broadway musicals made me curious about the other musical genres they often paid tribute to), and I'm slowly trying to see all of the major productions in person. Seeing the libretto acted out on stage is an intense learning experience, helping me link arias with a storyline and dramatic expressions. However, I don't currently know that much about music history, and certainly can't (yet) have an intellectual discussion about the merits of different composers and vocalists. Opera tickets cost $300 a pop, so when you pay that much to see something deemed "highbrow" in our society, there's this nagging feeling that you must be bowled over by the experience and love everything about it. I think this feeling is particularly acute when you don't have any deep knowledge of a subject.

I think my reaction to Tosca inherently parallels the ways in which people perceive and interpret science. Science is certainly one of those subjects which is viewed as intellectually elite. Like opera, many people either love it or hate it (and this is often a superficial reaction). For those people who are drawn to science, we think we have to like everything because it is SCIENCE, after all, and science is cool.

But music and science are both such a personal thing…some things in science are just not that interesting to individual people. People are drawn to different things As a postdoc, one frustrating but enlightening insight was convincing myself that that not all scientific topics are equally exhilarating. Time becomes increasingly precious as you move up the academic ladder, and as more opportunities become available, you must be able to critically pick and choose those which will sustain both your career advancement and personal passions. My own motivation to work hard is funadmentally linked to  how much I feel I "connect" with a project or person.

My exploration of opera--like my exploration of science--began with an intellectual curiosity. I was willing and eager to open my mind up to new ideas. I worked hard to determine the "experts" in the field, respecting their opinions and exploring the people and works which are canonized by the populace. Over time, this builds your confidence in a field. Armed with information, you are able to develop a certain level of intellectual analysis (a selective opinion) that enables you to objectively assess what is good (or not so good) based on your personal preferences and experiences. From here, you can start to question the status quo: should past viewpoints or theories be knocked down? Should new ones be erected? Confidence allows you to look at a field from a new perspective, in a way where you're not intimidated by what has been done in the past (by what other experts say). At this point you're not just extending older ideas--your personal history and experiences are unique, and your unique viewpoint may allow you to come up with transformative new ideas that trump and dethrone older ones. The most brazen among us then come to a stage where we can turn our viewpoint back on ourselves--deconstructing (destroying) our thought process along the way, analyzing and reshuffling our ideas to ensure a constant evolution. This is the hardest stage--not only does it require constant vigilance (sustaining the drive to maintain and expand your level of knowledge), but the constant questioning of your own "solidified" thoughts can be unnerving (especially during times when you're also juggling personal or professional adversity). By the time you revisit your original impressions of a field, (where your intellectual curiosity was sparked), the disparity in perception can be jarring.

After seeing Tosca and examining my own reaction, I realized that these little insights are also important stumbling blocks. As we explore something brand new (whether it be taking dance lessons, embarking on a new profession, or gaining scientific expertise in a new discipline), we must strive for a balance between openness and stubbornness. Adverse reactions may cause you to want to cease further exploration, but exploration shouldn't be stopped until all the possibilities have been exhausted--there might be a sub-discipline or an aria which you have yet to fall in love with. Tosca may not have been at all what I expected, but with disappointment I welcomed a newfound awareness.

**Endless thanks to @forestdim who helped solidify the ideas for this blog post over brunch

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