Kate Yandell has written a thoroughly fascinating article about opera and chemistry (Atoms and Arias) for the Mar. 23, 2013 issue of The Scientist,
In a paper published earlier this year (January 14) in the Journal of Chemical Education, André [João Paulo André], who is now a professor at the University of Minho in Portugal, described his strategy for exploring the links between chemistry and opera for educational purposes.
According to André, the pairing is a natural one, as opera actually chronicled the heady, early days of chemical discovery. Joseph Haydn’s Der Apotheker (also known as Lo Speziale) and Gaetano Donizetti’s one-act opera, Il Campanello, for example, both featured pharmacists as main characters. In 1768, as Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who would eventually discover oxygen, were immersed in their chemical labors, Haydn debuted Der Apotheker, a story about competition and love that plays out in the pharmacy. “There was something in the air. Chemistry was coming to be called a modern science,” Andé says. Il Campanello was first performed publicly in 1836, a time when many natural compounds were being isolated. It includes songs about long, complicated prescriptions. These “apothecary operas” illustrate the cultural pull chemistry used to have.
The researcher’s paper, published in the Journal of Chemical Education, has received worldwide interest. Meanwhile, Yandell’s article inspired this Mar. 24, 2013 posting on Les Vérités Scientifiques,
La constatation que nous livre l’auteur constitue-t-elle une surprise ? Non, car il en est de l’Opéra comme il en est de toute d’autre production artistique, littérature, peinture, musique : la mise en évidence d’une interpénétration entre l’actualité de la science et l’art. Chaque époque de la société se reflète dans ce que choisissent d’exprimer ses différents acteurs ce qui permet de regarder efficacement derrière soi (cf l’exposition L’ange du bizarre. Le romantisme noir de Goya à Max Ernst au musée d’Orsay).
This is going to be a rough (very) translation and any errors are entirely mine,
The relationship between opera and chemistry should not be a surprise since opera like all the other artistic enterprises such as literature, painting, music always reflect the social and scientific interests of their own epochs as we can see in various venues, e.g. L’ange du bizarre: the dark romanticism of artists ranging from Goya to Max Ernst at the musée d’Orsay [in Paris].
As Yandell’s article notes others have observed a relationship between opera and chemistry (Links have been removed),
Jorge Calado, a retired Portuguese chemistry professor and an opera critic for the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, saw André’s talk and helped edit the Journal of Chemical Education paper. …
Calado published a book in Portuguese in 2011 whose title translates to Let There be Light! A History of Chemistry Through Everything, in which he tells the story of chemistry’s early roots through the lens of the arts and humanities, including opera.
He says that André’s paper made him want to write his own follow-up paper, and that he could think of even more examples of operas with connections to chemistry—from Jacques Offenbach’s Le Docteur Ox (1877), based on a story by science fiction writer Jules Verne, to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (2005), which chronicles the creation of the atom bomb in Los Alamos.
Aside from the fact that it’s well worth reading, Yandell’s article is studded with opera videos that enhance the opera/chemistry relationships being described.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the research article,
Opera and Poison: A Secret and Enjoyable Approach To Teaching and Learning Chemistry by João Paulo André. J. Chem. Educ., 2013, 90 (3), pp 352–357 DOI: 10.1021/ed300445b
Publication Date (Web): January 14, 2013
Copyright © 2013 The American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.
This article is behind a paywall.
The Feb. 14, 2013 posting on the Smithsonian blog offers a little more information about the project,
Any good opera needs a dramatic twist, and death by poison and potions fits the bill. When a team of chemists took a closer look at the formulas behind these concoctions in 20 operas, they found 25 different natural and synthetic chemical materials featured. The researchers suggest that teachers use these poison plots to engage students with chemistry, and while opera isn’t exactly an easy sell with most teenagers, learning about death by deadly nightshade probably ranks higher for most than memorizing yet another chemical formula.
The Smithsonian posting also offers a few tidbits from beyond the article’s paywall.
I believe this is a case where a few people independently had similar ideas as there is a professor in Germany who has also combined chemistry and opera although he has turned to performance. Professor Dr. Gerald Linti, at Heidelberg University has been staging musical chemistry experiments since 2004 if I’ve properly understood the German on his Special Events webpage,
- Lange Nacht im Schloss (März 2004)
“Chemie und Oper für Jedermann: Tannhäuser”
More recently (2009), Linti produced a Puccini night as part of his ongoing Chemistry and Opera series,
Under the title “Turandot’s Three Chemical Riddles” Gerald Linti, professor at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Inorganic Chemistry, and his students will be giving another demonstration of their legendary skill in the musical staging of chemical experiments at 6 p.m. on 26 June 2009.
He seems to have followed that up with a 2011 opera night at a conference titled, Modeling Molecular Properties, according to an Oct. 11, 2011 article by Sarah Miller for Chemistry Views,
The first day concluded with the spectacular “Chemistry and Opera” arranged by Professor Gerald Linti, University of Heidelberg. This demonstrated the beauty and fun of chemistry as Linti told the story of a Chinese Princess while his assistants performed chemistry experiments in time to live opera.
This sounds like a restaging of ‘Turandot’s Three Chemical Riddles’ from 2009. Here’s one of the images which illustrates Miller’s article,Maybe it’s time for a new ‘chemistry’ opera. Any takers?