TESLA, a multidisciplinary opera about inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived around the turn of the 19th century, premieres this week at SoBe Arts in Miami Beach, Florida. Written by Carson Kievman and Thomas Babe, the opera features a cast of international singers, led by Kenneth Mattice and Anastasia Malliaras in the roles of Nikola Tesla and his lover Marie Astor Hampton, respectively.
True to its subject matter, TESLA will be using technology to reach as wide an audience as possible. For those who can't make it to Florida, SoBe Arts plans to offer a live stream of the production on Friday, September 29 at 8 p.m. EST.
Before the opening of TESLA, Kenneth Mattice and Anastasia Malliaras took a few minutes out to talk about their characters, putting on a world premiere, and what happens when a hurricane interrupts rehearsal.
Kenneth, you’ve performed all over the world – Australia, Germany, Florida. Do you have any favorite locations?
Kenneth Mattice: (Laughs) Good question. It’s hard to beat the location of Florida as far as weather goes, and sun and surf and all that. I hesitate to say it would be my favorite place because I haven’t sung here that often and I have so many good experiences from other locations. My favorite locations would honestly be the biggest and best opera houses in the world. So the Metropolitan, the Staatsoper in Vienna, and the Sydney Opera House -- those would be some really amazing places to be just because they’re the epicenters of our field. But as far as climate and weather, you can’t beat Florida.
What’s the European opera world like for an American opera singer?
Kenneth Mattice: Well, the European opera scene is very multicultural. It’s filled with people from all over the world. I’m speaking mostly in relation to the German speaking countries -- so Germany, Austria, Switzerland -- they support their arts so well, that they have full time companies that have full time soloist ensembles; and they do so many operas there that they have the chance to try out so many things. So in Europe you have a lot more open-mindedness than you do in the U.S. Now, that’s mainly because they can take a chance. Like where I’m working at Theater Hagen, we have seven opera productions; we can take chances on two or three. Whereas if you’re at a small company, you know, even consider Florida Grand in comparison: they only do four or five productions a year, and so they take fewer chances because they can’t afford to. If audiences don’t show up for one or two operas, then they’re really in trouble. And that’s not necessarily the case in Europe.
Anastasia, I noticed you like to strategically plan your opera roles around beautiful locations, like Bay View and Miami. Any places you’re planning to visit next or that you would like to?
Anastasia Malliaras: Oh my gosh. Well, I’m always open to go anywhere, especially if I’m able to sing. But luckily I’m based out of Los Angeles, which is definitely a beautiful place to live as well.
Any dream roles?
Anastasia Malliaras: I would love to do Marie from Daughter of the Regiment.
Kenneth, what do you find most compelling about your character, Nikola Tesla?
Kenneth Mattice: The most compelling thing is that he has so many ideas, and he tries to find any way possible to get across these new ideas to people that aren’t really ready for them. I think that’s a really compelling and challenging part of this role: to always have people pushing back against you, and bringing more energy to overcome their shortsightedness or their lack of imagination -- that Tesla really had. It’s really amazing how many of his ideas and inventions have come to fruition right now in this day and age. On NPR this morning I heard about these radio waves coming from outer space, and they’re coming all the time. And Nikola Tesla in 1900 – this is a good tie-in, maybe, to some modern science – in 1900 he had this idea, and it’s in the opera as well, about hearing the signals 1,2,3: this repeating pattern. And that might be starting to prove true even now in 2017: 117 years after he first had this idea. But nobody would listen to him; they all thought he was crazy and just starting to lose it. But even in this thought, he was really ahead of his time. All the other things -- the radio transmission, not to mention the power that we use nowadays -- it’s so amazing that he’s not known as well as he is. And it’s really going to be cool in the next year or so, there are a lot of movies coming out, and miniseries and documentaries about him that I think are really going to put him up on the pedestal where he deserves to be.
Anastasia, can you tell us a little bit about your character, Marie Astor Hampton?
Anastasia Malliaras: Sure! So my character is a fictional character who is based off of a real life person: Katharine Johnson, who is the wife of Robert Underwood Johnson, who was a famous American writer. So they were friends of Teslas, but since there were some artistic liberties taken with her character they had to change the name to Marie. So in the show, she is Tesla’s lover, and not only does she love him, but she’s his supporter as well.
It looks like you get to wear some pretty awesome costumes in this production. Do you have a favorite?
Anastasia Malliaras: Yes, the one I get to wear in the party scene is my favorite one, because first of all, it’s the least heavy. All the costumes are real vintage costumes so they’re very heavy. But it’s a beautiful gown. The skirt is a beautiful cream color and the top is an embroidered corset with some tool on the top. That’s definitely my favorite costume.
Do either of you have a favorite moment in the show?
Kenneth Mattice: I think one of our favorite moments together is obviously the scene where we have the most to do with one another.
Anastasia Malliaras: Yeah.
Kenneth Mattice: And that’s scene number 11 in the second act. It’s called “Sex and Electricity.” It’s based at Tesla’s Colorado lab where he had this huge epi-coil that extends out the rooftop of this building. And it actually conducted electricity from lightning and blew out all the transformers in the nearby town. In this scene, it’s really where we see Tesla – and in this opera version, Marie – really connect and have some alone moments, and they get intimate. And there’s a lot of symbolism, of course, between the electricity that’s going on all around them and coming from the lightning – from nature itself – as well as the electricity going on between those two characters. And I think it’s a really humanizing moment, because you see Tesla in this very vulnerable state, where he’s very excited about what’s going on -- which is experiments -- but also very nervous and unsure about what might happen between him and Marie.
A lot of things can go wrong in the show business. But you had to deal with a literal hurricane interrupting rehearsal. What was that like?
Anastasia Malliaras: In regards to the show preparation, I think we got on track pretty quickly. Afterwards we had some long staging days, but I don’t think anybody was really worried about the state of the show: I mean, as far as getting everything staged and getting comfortable with our music. But the living conditions were a little rough. We didn’t have any power for a while, and most of us left town.
Kenneth Mattice: Certainly living six days without power was challenging when you’re trying to be completely focused on not just an opera, but a world premiere. No one else has performed these roles before, no one else has sung this music before. So we’re not only learning the music and learning the staging, but we’re creating these characters from scratch. We have some historical basis as well to draw from. But really every moment, every interaction between each other – you know, this is our creation. And so it was challenging working on little sleep, because of the heat. And it’s very ironic, as you might imagine, working on a show about alternating current electricity and not having any ourselves.
Kenneth, how do you feel about the Tesla mustache?
Kenneth Mattice: I’m embracing it. I’m often wearing a goatee. But as a man in the opera world, and in the theatre world, you know that your facial hair is not under your own control. It’s based on whatever character you are playing. So if you need a beard for a show, you start growing a beard. So I don’t mind it at all. I’m kind of embracing it. I know in this day and age it’s not as popular – but maybe I’m bringing it back.
Tesla runs Sept 28 through October 1 at SoBe Arts in Miami. It will also stream live on September 29 at 8pm. For more information, visit: https://sobearts.org/