O Columbia

When I first heard that the Houston Grand Opera proposed to produce an opera about the Columbia disaster, I was appalled.

If HGO wanted a spaceflight opera, it would better be the moon landing of Apollo 11; or the successful story of Hubble repair; or the construction of the ISS. But not Columbia.
I envisioned a maudlin, inaccurate, titillating soap opera treatment of a still too painful event. Something that would be disrespectful of the dead, their families, and all those who worked so hard and yet failed a decade ago. Something that Hollywood might produce.
I resolved to try to shut this down.

Then I received an invitation to talk with the HGO leadership, the writers and creative talent who would develop and produce the opera. I drove downtown with the mission burning in my heart to stop this, direct them away, keep this project stillborn.

When I met the HGO team, they were respectful, considerate, and affirming. They reached out to more than a few members of the NASA community to gain input. We talked about everything possible aspect and I expressed my concerns in my best program manager brusque style. They listened. I came away grudgingly admitting that it might be barely acceptable. Not accurate, but possibly respectful.

Great tragedy, as I am reminded, can focus attention on great human values. Art, music, dance can lead to an emotional understanding which can transcend and reach people who otherwise would be unaware. The most powerful works of the stage – from Shakespeare to Faulkner – use tragedy to highlight values and meaning.

After the HGO team spend several weeks at work, we were invited back to hear the reading of the libretto; the words. A crowd of familiar NASA faces joined at the stage door of the Wortham center in downtown Houston to hear what had been created.

First we heard from the composer designated to work on the project. A soprano brought some of his previous work into glorious voice.

Then we were ushered into a room for the reading of the libretto. Very informal, no sets, no costumes, just a stark rehearsal room where we sat on folding chair while several performers on stools faced us over music stands holding the pages.

The various voices read, did not sing, the text, all the while in character.

It was not merely good, it was great.

It put space exploration in a historical context. It used the point of view of a young person aspiring to be an astronaut. There was nothing neither maudlin nor titillating. At one point there were tears among the audience. It was powerful.

After the reading we were asked for comments; the astronauts spoke first, then we all had the chance; praise for the approach, minor corrections to the script, overall an emotional release.

The music is in composition, much later the sets and costumes will be constructed, rehearsals will begin. The curtain should go up in October 2015. Just like all space projects, the schedule will take some time.

I think it will be great.
You should mark your calendar and go.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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6 Responses to O Columbia

  1. Tim Gagnon says:

    Thank you for sharing this Wayne. I will definitely attend. I hope it’s presented here at KSC as well.

  2. Beth says:

    “It used the point of view of a young person aspiring to be an astronaut. ” Of all viewpoints possible, this one seems most inspired. I hope to have the opportunity to experience this.

  3. Chris Ramsay says:

    Thanks for posting Wayne. Since I love Opera and, of course, the Shuttle I will plan to attend. I certainly wouldn’t have considered attending without your recommendation.

  4. Helenlane says:

    Having been a season ticket holder at the Houston Grand Opera and seen their other new operas, I was very confident about this one. Unlike Wayne, I knew it would be wonderful as they have done with their other new operas. However, as Wayne said, what we saw on that Friday at lunch did bring tears. I hope everyone in the NASA- exploration, and STEM education community goes to see this opera inOct 2015. It will be inspiring! Helen Lane

  5. Karen says:

    Thank you for letting us know about this work in progress. I’m glad they included you and others in developing this project.

  6. lhalvor says:

    Sounds wonderful. That’s what music is about!

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