Unlike his colleague and rival, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla ended his days on this Earth poor and mentally unstable, despite having invented electrical alternating-current distribution and the radio. Edison, who invented the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion-picture camera, achieved household-name status — that name lives on in New York City’s energy company, Consolidated Edison, aka Con Ed. But in the 21st century, it’s Tesla (1856-1943) who has acquired a romanticized, near-cult status. Why?
“He seems to symbolize the individual to the extreme, even in the way he worked,” suggests Phil Kline, a new-music composer whose opera, Tesla in New York, is being presented as a work-in-progress this weekend at the Hopkins Center. “His competitors farmed out work and had a team. Tesla always worked alone. His reputation is so complicated,” Kline adds, “it’s daunting.”
It’s also filled with colorful notions, such as Tesla’s ambition to send power through the air. If only he’d lived to experience Wi-Fi.
Speaking on the phone from his home in New York, Kline says the idea of a work based on the troubled Serbian American visionary emerged about five years ago, when he was talking with his longtime friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, about collaborating on a musical project. With a number of varied compositional achievements to his credit, Kline now just wants “to write song cycles and theatrical productions,” he says. Jarmusch told him he’d always wanted to do something about Nikola Tesla.
Kline and Jarmusch go way back — to sixth grade in Akron, Ohio. When the two moved to New York as young men, they played together in a rock band, the Del-Byzanteens. Kline evolved toward writing contemporary/experimental music, while Jarmusch shifted to filmmaking. The auteur, something of a cult figure himself, is best known for such indie hits as Down By Law, Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
“Our project has been on and off because of Jim’s film career,” Kline says, and notes that Jarmusch is currently finishing up a new one. Kline has not been sitting on his thumbs, either; his website lists 14 works created over the past five years.
Periodically, the two friends — who both own homes in upstate New York — would work together on a script for Tesla, plotting out a few scenes. “He worked more on book, not libretto,” Kline says. “We didn’t want to be too detail oriented — [the opera] has to be driven by character and emotion.” Eventually, Kline drafted a synopsis on his own, getting feedback from Jarmusch in “a flurry of messages.” Kline says the libretto, now about 45 minutes long, is “halfway done.”
Hence the work-in-progress that audiences will see this Friday and Saturday — sections of six scenes, Kline explains. For help with staging, he consulted with New York City-based Phantom Limb Company, known for its work with marionettes and multimedia theatrical productions. The staging at the Hop this week, however, will be spare, consisting of opera scenes and what Kline calls “interludes” — mostly instrumental music. Eventually a multilevel set will visually convey some of Tesla’s inventions, and Kline notes that Jarmusch is going to “make some little films.” The story, he adds, “is not a strict chronology.”
The composer stresses that “the paint isn’t dry” on Tesla in New York, but he’s looking forward to audience reaction to the first half of the piece this week. For the rest of this invention, audiences will have to be patient. Says Kline: “We want to premiere it in late 2014.”
"Tesla in New York," a work-in-progress by director Jim Jarmusch, composer Phil Kline and visual designers Phantom Limb; featuring the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Friday, April 5, and Saturday, April 6, 8 p.m., at Moore Theater, Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. $13-25. Info, 603-646-2422.
Pre-show Talk: “Ambition and Invention in the Gilded Age”; associate professor of history Leslie Butler discusses the cultural world of turn-of-the-century New York City. Friday, April 5, 7 p.m, Wilson Hall, Room 219, Dartmouth College. Free. Info, 603-646-2010.
Tesla TechFair, with a panel discussion about the mark Tesla’s inventions left on modern society. Thursday, April 4, 4 p.m., at Spanos Auditorium, Great Hall, Thayer School. Free. Info, 603-646-2010.