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An overlooked inventor gets a musical tribute in Miami Beach

When composer Carson Kievman first got the idea to do an opera about Nikola Tesla in the 1980s, no one really knew much about the Gilded Age inventor.

Sure, there was the hard-rock band and, much later, the electric car, both of which borrowed the surname. But who was this Nikola Tesla and what made him operaworthy?

“We didn’t read about him in our history books,” the North Miami Beach resident says. “He spent close to 70 years in abject poverty and completely unknown, this great, brilliant man. That struck me deep.”

Now, 31 years after Kievman first started to compose “Tesla,” the multidisciplinary opera will have a world premiere Sept. 28-Oct. 1 as a SoBe Arts production at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach.

Perhaps best known for his work with the induction motor and alternating current (AC) electrical supply, Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian immigrant who also laid the foundation for modern-day wireless communication, lasers, neon and fluorescent lighting, x-rays, remote control, robotics and radio transmission.

“I was surprised that this man had created everything that we use in the 21st century,” Kievman says. “What really sparked this opera was when I found out that when he found out that everything he created would result in the use of fossil fuels, and he knew that wouldn’t be good, he walked away from all these patents and inventions. He gave away millions … to go work on an energy creation that would not pollute the atmosphere. And he wanted to give it away for free. The powers that be of that time — John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, [George] Westinghouse — they all destroyed him. They were making millions and billions of dollars off everything he invented.”

“Tesla” will be told with nine principal vocalists, a six-member choral ensemble and a 25-piece chamber orchestra in front of a set that uses digital projections. The narrator is Mark Twain, a friend of Tesla in real life. Other peers from Tesla’s life are characters in the opera, including Westinghouse, Morgan and Thomas Edison.

Kievman has written seven operas, including “Hamlet,” which was commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He believes that music is the right medium to tell this story.

“One thing I’ve learned, and I’ve written a lot about science … is that people don’t want to be lectured,” he says. “They don’t want to be told that you shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that. But if you explain what’s going on with music and theater, but especially music, it’s much easier for them to take. And maybe we’ll do some good.”

Having co-written the libretto with the late playwright Thomas Babe, Kievman thinks the story will resonate with South Floridians, “because the idea of climate change and sea rise is so critical here. These were things that Tesla was already thinking about in the 19th century. If we don’t do something … Florida will be under water. I think everyone realizes something has to be done, and it has to be done now.”

Kievman says there was going to be a staging “in 1992, when we were hit by Hurricane Andrew. Now, 25 years later we’re premiering, and we’re hit by Hurricane Irma. That’s not lost on me.”

The first incarnation of the opera appeared in 1986 at the Eugene O’Neil Music Theater Conference. About 1998, a reading was held at the Hotel Colonnade Coral Gables. Babe died from cancer in 2000. Four years later, a workshop took place at the New York City Opera Vox festival. Feedback was tepid, with one attendee saying, “Who wants to see an opera about an immigrant scientist from Serbia Croatia?” The libretto was revised with the help of Miami Beach writer Mark David Needle (who has also worked with Kievman on the opera “Fairy Tales, Songs of the Dandelion Woman,” which was also premiered by SoBe Arts in 2014), and the score was completed in 2016. While this was going on in the opera world, Tesla was trending in the cyber world.

“The car came along,” Kievman recalls. “And people got more curious and now he’s gone viral, especially with millennials. I had a Google [alert], and I used to get one, maybe two hits. Now, I get 600, 700, 800 — 1000 a day sometimes. He’s definitely on people’s minds.”

“Tesla” runs Sept. 28-Oct. 1 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, in Miami Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee Sunday. Tickets cost $45 (general admission) and $60 (VIP). To order, call 800-211-1414 or go to ColonyMB.org/Tesla.

In response to those who have suffered the impact of Hurricane Irma, SoBe Arts is offering complimentary tickets for opening night to the first 200 Floridians who email teslaopera@gmail.com by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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