An insect that once wreaked havoc across the Great Plains before its mysterious extinction is the subject of an opera set to be performed next weekend in Laramie.
“Locust: The Opera” is scheduled to show at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Gryphon Theatre, 710 Garfield St. Tickets are $15 for the general public or $7 for students and seniors.
Jeff Lockwood, a University of Wyoming professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies who wrote the libretto for “Locust: The Opera,” described the production as an “environmental murder mystery.”
According to Lockwood’s 2004 book “Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier,” locusts were a migratory insect that traveled periodically in swarms, especially during drought years.
By the mid-1870s, much of the Great Plains was settled by farmers and ranchers, and a drought several years in duration triggered a massive outbreak across a huge area. Swarms of mind-boggling size blackened the skies, devastating farms and communities. By the billions, they ravaged farms up and down the plains states, devouring anything organic down to sawdust, leather and clothing.
Entomologists began studying the insect and looking at ways to control its population, but even as they finished their work, invasions decreased because of a wetter climate cycle. By the time of the next drought, the swarms never returned.
The last living specimen was collected in 1902, and the Rocky Mountain locust is now considered extinct.
Lockwood joined the UW faculty more than 30 years ago as an entomologist in the College of Agriculture. His focus was grasshopper and locust control, and the plight of the Rocky Mountain locust caught his interest early in his career.
He spent four years looking for specimens, finally finding some in a glacier in the Wind River Mountains, which allowed him to explore the cause of the extinction.
Meanwhile, Lockwood’s career developing ways to kill billions of insects led him to considerations of the nature of suffering, violence and justice. That questioning lead him to begin writing essays and eventually teaching in the Department of Philosophy.
“It felt like science was still a necessary but no longer sufficient thing for me,” he said. “I needed to take some of my experiences and questions and move them into a humanistic sphere.”
Lockwood eventually moved full-time into the humanities, but he took the sciences with him.
“They still are a tremendously important part of my teaching and the raw material for my writing,” he said.
After writing a book about the locust, Lockwood didn’t revisit the topic until years later, when he was part of a 2014 event called the Cross-Pollination Experiment, when faculty from the arts and sciences collaborated in an effort to integrate their disciplines. He saw an opera come out of the program and thought he might have one of his own brewing.
“It rolled around in my head for months,” he said.
One initial sticking point for Lockwood was how to portray the locust as a serious character. Inspired by “Hamlet,” he made the locust a ghost that compels a scientist to solve the extinction question.
“It speaks as an individual, swarm and species without really committing to be precisely one of those,” he said. “But ghosts can do that.”
Lockwood enlisted composer Anne Guzzo, associate professor in the Department of Music, and began writing. He decided to keep the production under an hour and set a strict limit on how many words he could use.
Opera libretto, he said, is neither prose nor poetry. The closest comparison might be the lyric essay.
“I learned a lot from this one about sing-ability and about simplicity,” he said. “This was a great trial by fire.”
Guzzo took the three characters Lockwood created — the locust, the scientist and a rancher — and gave them “musical rules.” The rancher, looking to remove grasshoppers from his property, is grounded and cares about his land. The scientist, hired by the rancher, is active and perhaps restless.
She wanted the audience to love the locust the most, which was a challenge.
“Who wants to see an opera about a gross bug that literally comes and devours everything?” Guzzo joked.
So, she gave the locust the most beautiful sound of the three characters.
“I gave the locust music that feels the most settled, and you want to engulf yourself in it,” she said.
As Guzzo refined the composition, Lockwood refined the libretto. The project eventually include singers and a chamber orchestra, with further revisions required with each new artistic element.
Ashley Hope Carlisle, a UW professor who teaches sculpture in the Department of Art, designed the sets and costumes. Soprano Cristin Colvin of Denver has taken the leading role. Thomas Blomster with the Colorado Chamber Orchestra will be conducting.
“Locust: The Opera” premiered in Jackson a year ago. It was also performed in March at the 13th International Congress of Orthopterology in Agadir, Morocco. Orthopterology, of course, is the study of grasshoppers, crickets and locusts.
The artists decided to bring the opera to Laramie as an outreach event, with support from the Wyoming Humanities Council and UW Office of the President.
Many theories have attempted to explain the extinction of the locust, and most have been refuted. Was the health of the species connected to the loss of the bison and the ensuing impact on grassland ecology? Did the climate change? Perhaps grazing and homesteading disturbed too many river valley breeding areas?
Locusts evoked dread and were thought to threaten the settlement of the plains, but their loss is an environmental tragedy. What does the extinction of such a fearsome and destructive species say about the humans that might have caused it? Is there a limit to our capacity to wreak change? How fragile might we also be?
“This story, like all stories, of human interactions with the natural world, is complicated,” Lockwood said. “Is it tragic to have lost a species of such grandeur and iconic meaning, that caused such devastation to humans? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”