In 1992, Carson Kievman was hard at work on an opera based on the life of a little-known inventor. He and co-writer Thomas Babe were putting the finishing touches on the libretto of the script. Then Hurricane Andrew hit.
Twenty-five years later, earlier this month, Kievman's production, Tesla, was at last making its final preparations to be staged before an audience. Then nature intervened again, with Hurricane Irma.
"It's kind of strange," Kievman laughs. "I don't know if it's Tesla calling down to us or what."
Tesla, of course, is the 19th-century scientist Nikola Tesla, whose breakthroughs in the field of electricity helped transform the way the world used power. These days, the name Tesla is famous thanks to the innovative auto-making company headed by Elon Musk in California. But the story of the man himself is more obscure and full of enough passion and drama to fuel, well, an entire opera.
Kievman began researching Tesla on a tip from Paulette Haupt, former director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference. "I didn't really know anything about him," he admits. "The first thing I learned was the technology part, of course. We grow up knowing all about Thomas Edison but nothing at all about Tesla... I thought [the show] was going to be superelectronic, wild, weird, and strange — and it still has some elements of that — but the more I wrote about Tesla and his life, the more I started to relate to him on a deeper emotional level. What he sacrificed and what happened to him deeply moved me."
Few people know, Kievman says, that Tesla battled with Thomas Edison, each wanting his own electric invention to become the worldwide standard. Tesla worked on systems of alternating current (AC), while Edison worked in direct current (DC). Tesla's AC ultimately won the "battle of the currents" following a successful presentation at the World's Fair in 1892, earning the scientist a fortune on his patents. "He was on top of the world... living on Park Avenue and partying with the best-known people around the world," Kievman says.
But it didn't last. "Suddenly, he realized that everything he had created which was substantial — robotics, lasers, wireless communications, x-rays, the list goes on — if it expanded the way that it has, it would create an enormous demand for the burning of fossil fuels," Kievman says. "He didn't know it would destroy the planet, but he thought it would be extremely damaging. And this was 120 years ago."
So Tesla gave it all away — his work, his royalties, his Park Avenue apartment — and moved across the country to Colorado Springs. There, he built a lab to develop another, more responsible way to create energy: "to extract it out of the ionosphere and deliver it safely in a nonpolluting way."
Another crucial part of his plan? To make energy free to the whole world.
"The people making millions and billions off of [Tesla's] earlier inventions said, 'Are you kidding me? F you!" Kievman explains.
As you might expect, things didn't end well for Tesla. He spent the last part of his life in poverty and obscurity. Kievman says Tesla was even ignored by history books after Edison bought his patents and declared himself the father of electricity.
But in recent years, things have been looking up for Tesla's legacy, and not just because of Musk. The issue of climate change has become a top point of debate in politics in the 30 years since Kievman began his work on the scientist's biography in music-theater form. And don't forget: Tesla was a U.S. immigrant from Serbia.
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Kievman says the show's staging now, with Donald Trump in the White House and a nation divided on issues such as the environment and immigration, wasn't a tactical move. But that doesn't mean his show can't help.
"If people had listened to Tesla, we wouldn't have all these storms and sea-level rise," he says. "He created what's causing the problem, and he had a solution which they ignored."
Maybe now, Kievman continues, the story of Tesla can change audiences' perspectives.