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An opera about dead locusts is coming to the UK

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
6 min read
An opera about dead locusts is coming to the UK
Credit: AH Carlisle.

In the Rocky Mountains, a grisly scene awaits you. Glaciers there are melting, releasing, among other things, huge piles of rotting locusts that were encased in the ice long ago.

“Some of the glaciers are just littered with the remains of this species,” says entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood, of the University of Wyoming, referring to the Rocky Mountain locust. Lockwood made his first field trips to Knife Point Glacier decades ago, and recalls finding dismembered legs and mandibles, as well as whole bodies, in the thawing ice.

American farmers were once plagued by Rocky Mountain locusts but the insects suddenly went extinct around 1900. The question that plagued Lockwood was: why did they die out?

“It was kind of an ecological murder mystery,” he says.

This, he reasoned, wasn’t just an important focus for his research, it also made perfect fodder for an opera.

Locust: The Opera is due to make its UK/European premiere at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this autumn, at venues in Glasgow (2 November, tentative) and St Andrews (31 October). The opera was first performed in the US in 2018 and you can watch scenes one, two and three (which comprise the entire work) on YouTube.

If you’re not really into opera, perhaps even if you are, Locust: The Opera might seem rather strange. But it is certainly thought-provoking and leaves you questioning the role humans have long played in reshaping Earth’s ecosystems.

There are three characters: the scientist, loosely based on Lockwood; the rancher, who provides a link to the agricultural past and present; and the beautiful female locust ghost – who speaks, or rather sings, for her entire species. “Our tombs are melting, releasing us from the ice,” she announces.

She goes on to say that, at one time, the total mass of Rocky Mountain locusts was comparable to that of all the bison in the western US. Their swarms could get so dense that they blocked out the sun. After recounting this lost grandeur, the ghost then turns to pestering the scientist with her burning question: “How did we vanish?”

A locust body pictured against a bed of melting ice, with a pen for scale.
A Rocky Mountain locust melting out of ice at Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming. Credit: JA Lockwood.

The rest of the opera is a journey of enquiry that, in the end, does yield the answer. I won’t reveal all the details but, in a nutshell, human farming practices in the 19th Century led to the loss of habitat used by these locusts to reproduce. The insects were restricted to ever smaller patches of ground, which ultimately doomed them.

“I understand that it seems unimaginable to people that […] in this case, a few thousand frontier farmers could wipe out an entire species,” says Lockwood. But that's the whole point of the opera – to say that, yes, the killer was us.

One of the key messages here is that humans sometimes make impacts on the planet that we’re not even conscious of at the time, and which we can struggle to accept were our fault when we find out about them later. Global warming. Pollinator decline. The pollution of waterways. There is, sadly, a long list of such effects.

Locusts can devastate entire communities, however, so part of the challenge in writing an opera lamenting their disappearance was in getting the audience to really care about the locust character, says composer Anne Guzzo, also at the University of Wyoming. She wrote the music for the opera, while Lockwood took care of the libretto, or lyrics.

“How am I going to get people to fall in love with, and want to empathise with, a swarm that destroys things, from human perspectives?” she says.

Guzzo decided to reserve for the locust character the most beautiful and striking melodies – and to get the audience to play their own part in the story. Attendees of the opera receive a piece of tissue paper and, at a few points during the performance, are asked to rustle them en masse, mimicking the sound of billions of wings.

Once the audience is drawn in to the story, the plight of nature itself becomes clear. In the finale, the glittering locust ghost sings: “If you will not protect the last grove of old-growth forest, the only patch of tallgrass prairie, the final tract of arctic tundra… What hope is there for locusts?”

We're a long way from the euphoria of "Vincerò! Vincerò!", that's for sure.

A locust specimen with a pin through it, viewed from the side.
A Rocky Mountain locust specimen. Credit: JA Lockwood.

Lockwood and Guzzo say their intention was to encourage the audience to feel culpable on some level. In my view, that’s the strength of the work. While there are umpteen wonderful pieces of music that reflect upon the natural world, from Vaughan Williams’ much-loved The Lark Ascending to the deliriously vivid Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé, Locust: The Opera doesn’t just represent nature – it holds a magnifying glass to humans, too.

It foregrounds the importance of our stewardship, our own self-awareness, and prizes ecological balance above all else. The fact that locusts can cause great harm to people and their livelihoods is not dismissed as irrelevant, either. It’s just that the context here is bigger than us and our lives only.

Locust: The Opera might only have enjoyed a handful of performances so far, but Lockwood and Guzzo say the response has been very positive. Besides the planned shows at COP26 this year, the pair and their colleagues are also working on some new, mini operas about other nature-related subjects. These will last just 15 minutes or so and are to be performed as pop-up events at small venues in Wyoming this autumn. I, for one, am curious to see where this field of science-fuelled opera will go.

Lockwood adds, “If we can get people to think about the environment, and feel through music, we’ll have accomplished something."

Remember, indeed, that anthropogenic climate change is currently accelerating the thawing of glaciers, the very process that enabled the ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust, in the opera, to emerge in the first place. She is not just a source of memories from the past, she brings warnings for the future, too.

The world, she seems to whisper, between her pointed refrains, is changing once again.

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Of all the articles I read this week, the one I couldn't stop thinking about was Melissa Harrison’s in The Guardian, on the classic children’s stories and guides inspired by nature. In it, well-known nature writers including Robert Macfarlane, Mary Colwell and James Rebanks reminisce about their most treasured tomes.

Harrison begins, however, with an evocative description of one of her own favourites: The Little Grey Men, a fantasy novel by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who used the pen-name BB. The book tells a folklore-rich tale about the last four gnomes in Great Britain, who embark on an extraordinary journey across the English countryside.

“I loved BB’s illustrations, the precise and detailed rendering of the natural history in the book, and most of all the feeling it gave me of a secret world to which I was being granted privileged access.”

What books opened your eyes to nature, as a child?

I also recommend this interview with photographers Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, by Robert Langkjær-Bain, for 5. It discusses the duo's Eyes as Big as Plates project, outdoor portraits of people draped in everything from fish to rhubarb.

Credit: Eyes as Big as Plates # Scotty (Tasmania 2019) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen.

Hjorth and Ikonen do not insist that there is any particular meaning or objective behind their work but to me these images seem to probe the apparent human-nature divide; as well as the eclecticism of both humanity and the wider natural world.

As Ikonen says:

“It started with folk tales and how people would personify different natural phenomena, give them a human form, make them understandable. Maybe that’s a way that we could approach climate change. If you understand more, you’ll care more. We’re not the ones to say if it works.”

(Thanks to Sophie Yeo, who runs Inkcap Journal, for flagging this piece to me, by the way!)

Last but not least, Emma Marris's review in Nature of ecologist Suzanne Simard’s memoir Finding the Mother Tree is well worth your time. Marris discusses Simard’s studies of the fungal-root networks used by trees to, for instance, communicate with one another across great distances.

But she also describes how Simard faced many challenges as a woman scientist, and drew strength from her own nourishing networks – of family, friends and colleagues.

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.