A view From the Bridge

The Hubble ‘space opera’

3Q: Paola Prestini

Hubble image of the Orion Nebula, at 1,500 light-years away, the nearest star-forming region to Earth. The bright glow at upper left is from M43, a small region being shaped by a massive, young star's ultraviolet light.

Hubble image of the Orion Nebula, the nearest star-forming region to Earth.

NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team.

In 2012, composer Paola Prestini began collaborating with astrophysicist Mario Livio — who worked at the Hubble Space Telescope’s operations centre from 1991 to 2015 — on a “space opera” celebrating the instrument’s 25th anniversary. The result, The Hubble Cantata, debuted on the telescope’s 26th. Performed on 6 August at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in New York City’s Prospect Park, it is a multidimensional paean to the ‘eye in the sky’, meshing Livio’s narration with performances by Norwegian orchestra 1B1, a 100-strong chorus and Metropolitan opera stars Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, and a climax featuring a 3D virtual-reality (VR) experience incorporating Hubble images that allows viewers to drift through the Orion Nebula. Here Prestini talks about the joys and challenges of putting together a highly collaborative meld of science and art.

What inspired this project?

About four years ago, I was asked by the nonprofit Bay Chamber Concerts — who were in touch with Matt Mountain, then-head of Hubble operations centre the Space Telescope Science Institute — to create a piece commemorating the telescope’s legacy and anniversary. I began to read what Mario Livio had written on his blog, and after meeting, we began to pull together a loose narrative. With the librettist Royce Vavrek, I realised that Mario could become the inspiration for the opera’s main character. What emerged from our collaboration with Mario was a cantata drawing connections between human loss, love and sorrow, and the life cycle of a star. We decided that Mario would narrate and be the voice of the lead character, an astrophysicist who had lost his wife; there would be an adult choir, children’s choir and orchestra. No Hubble images would be used until the ending, which would culminate in a VR work exploring the beauty and depth of Hubble images. I began to record Livio, and that was the launch of the cooperation.

Of the performance

Dancer Wendy Whelan projected on a scrim at the debut performance of The Hubble Cantata; singers Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn can be seen behind.

Sasha Arutyunova

How does your composition incorporate science?

Both in its premise, of course, and in the technological underpinnings that have gone into creating it. I worked with sound designer Terence Caulkins from engineering firm Arup to create the 3D soundscape. To present the experience outdoors, in particular for the VR experience, we needed to create an immersive experience that gives the impression sounds are moving around and through the audience space. We mixed the music in a spatialized sound format called Ambisonics, which can be used for various loudspeaker layouts. For example, in its Soundlab Arup has a sphere of loudspeakers that allows you to place sounds around, above and below listeners to enhance the VR effect. Ambisonic sound can also be mixed down to “binaural”, which is a 360-degree sound format for headphones. (This is what people downloading our free app, Fistful of Stars, will hear.) For the performance, we designed a concentric eight-point loudspeaker system surrounding the audience. The electronic narration sequences include Mario speaking about everything from baryonic matter to extra-solar life. Filmmaker Eliza McNitt created the virtual-reality film in collaboration with the Endless Collective. This is a five-minute VR video that gives a 360-degree tour through space, comprising CGI-animated Hubble imagery of the Orion Nebula. We found a company to sponsor cardboard virtual-reality glasses for audience members.

What is it like for you as an artist to work with scientists?

Astrophysicist Mario Livio, composer Paola Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek (L to R).

Astrophysicist Mario Livio, composer Paola Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek (L to R).

Jill Steinberg

It’s great fun. It’s fascinating to think about our creative processes and how different they are. Mario has worked with the Baltimore Symphony as a narrator for performances, but never really deeply in a music collaborative process before this one. There’s a great deal of learning going on for all of us. He needed to trust that we were going to bring these massive concepts to fruition, so there was a lot of back and forth. He is able to explain super-complex concepts, such as dark matter, to musicians; setting these texts as simple narrations was important to me so that they could be clearly understood. Hubble’s legacy and what it has done for our understanding of the Universe is at the core of our drive to give it a musical life. The loss of communication between loved ones in the cantata storyline is echoed by the expansion of the Universe “at the rate of our imagination” (something Mario often says). Yet as the fictional astrophysicist’s understanding of the Universe deepens, he reconstructs his wife’s story and understands her better. Woven together, those twin threads in the piece — the rarity of life in the grand cosmic scene, and Hubble’s revelation of that scene — connect human and cosmic scenarios, revealing realities that may exist at vastly different scales, but that are each vastly important.

Interview by Jeff Tollefson, a reporter for Nature based in Washington DC. He tweets at @jefftollef.

Paola Prestini is currently in conversation with several producers in the United States and overseas about presenting The Hubble Cantata again. The piece will be released as a recording by VIA Records and as a short film by an as-yet unnanounced distributor.


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