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Watch a Dinosaur Opera at New York’s American Museum of Natural History

Sink your teeth into the family friendly “Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt”

smithsonian.com

In the last century, opera has moved beyond sad clowns and Greek heroes to include some truly strange topics, like Nixon visiting China, Stephen King’s The Shining, and a drunken landlord visiting the moon (where he, of course, finds ghastly “modern art”). Add a new production to that list. Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience reports that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is hosting a short opera about dinosaur bones.

According to On Site Opera, which is producing the original opera, the 20-minute piece entitled Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt is based on the experiences of Rhoda Knight Kalt, the granddaughter of Charles R. Knight the famous paleoartist who created many well-known paintings and sculptures for the museum. On the weekends, Knight would camp out at the museum to study the museum’s fossils and create his works and most of the time Rhoda accompanied her grandfather, whom she called "Toppy."

In real life, Rhoda was quite well-behaved. “We'd go upstairs with the scientists, and it was nothing for my grandfather to stand for an hour discussing one bone,” Kalt tells Weisberger. “I never interrupted. I could never be impatient — if I was impatient, I wouldn’t have been able to go with him.”

A little girl being well-behaved is a truly terrible plot for an opera, however. So, with Kalt’s permission, Eric Einhorn, the writer and director of the opera takes liberties with the story. According to Logan Martell at Operawire, in the piece Rhoda is tasked by her sagacious grandfather with trying to envision a living deinocheirus, a very strange long-armed dinosaur, from just a fossilized talon. The opera—and literally the orchestra—follows an eight-year-old Rhoda around the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs as she uses the dinosaur skeletons to learn about the dinosaur family tree, their relationship to birds and uses her imagination to make a drawing of the dinosaur. 

“Among the themes was the relationship between science and imagination. This was present not only in the lyrics but in the costume choices as Knight sets to his work on the fossils not with microscopes or lab equipment, but by donning a painter’s smock and taking up his brushes,” writes Martell, who watched the opera's premiere. “This approach to paleontology shows the discipline in a far more accessible light, one that children such as Rhoda can partake in by tapping into their abundant creative faculties.”

That’s the point of the opera, says composer John Musto. It’s not about memorizing dinosaur taxonomy or paleontology, at all. “The piece isn't really about science or dinosaurs,” he tells Weisberger. “It’s about drama. It’s about the relationship between these characters and the way they interact with each other. That's what opera is.”

The opera will be performed on weekends through October 15, with shows at 11:30 A.M. on Fridays and at noon and 2:30 on Saturday and Sundays. After its initial run, it will travel to Lyric Unlimited in Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, where the opera was co-commissioned and co-produced.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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