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A Rock Opera Based on Classic Work of Science Fiction? Yes Please!

What do astronauts stranded on a disabled space ship have in common with nuclear war, an alien invasion, and the end of the world? A rock opera debuting at Memorial Hall called The Bradbury Tattoosthat’s what. 

Zac Greenberg, who wrote the music for the show describes it as, “a David Bowie inspired experimental space rock opera opera based on short stories from Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.” Sir, you had my interest. Now you have my full attention.

Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man is a collection of 18 short science fiction stories published in 1951. The common thread throughout all of the stories is a heavily tattooed drifter known as (you guessed it) “the Illustrated Man.” His tattoos are animated because they were drawn by a time traveling woman and each one tells a different story. The Bradbury Tattoos focuses on 4 of those stories, each with “a different style of music that sets a different tone and mood,” according to Greenberg. 

The first story is “Kaleidoscope” which is about the crew of a disabled spacecraft reflecting on their lives while drifting toward death. The narrator in this particular story isn’t thrilled about dying (not that anyone would be) because he feels that he hasn’t accomplished anything. Sonically “this one is very immersive,” says Greenberg, “it's a lot of sounds coming from off stage in and around the audience and it's very abstract in a way.”

From there we head into “The Highway” which is about a husband and wife who live near a highway in rural Mexico helping refugees fleeing a nuclear war. “It's from the perspective of these farmers who really have no connection to the outside world,” says Greenberg. “And it's a very rooted folk singer soundscape.” 

Next up is “Zero Hour” about children in a utopian society who play a game called “Invasion,” which turns out to be more than a game when the aliens show up. As for the music, Greenberg says “that's a big band thing with 11 instruments and a baritone sax and a whole aggressive sound.”

And we close with “The Last Night of the World” about a married couple going about their normal routines despite realizing that the world is about to end. There is no tomorrow and rather than go crazy like so many of us would, they just go on as usual. “That’s just a nice string quartet and a vocal duet,” says Greenberg. 

The Illustrated Man is full of fascinating stories, several of which could be their own stand-alone full length operas, so how were these four chosen? “We each made a list of ones we loved and then we went for what we thought we could afford to do well,” says Michael Burnham who wrote the libretto. There was also a diversity of settings and themes in those 4 stories that could be woven together with a common narrative. “There’s an early 1960’s Twilight Zone quality to it,” says Burnham, “where ultimately it’s about humans and what’s going on inside of them.” Greenberg concurs with this sentiment. “2001: A Space Odyssey was a huge influence and so was the original Star Trek. It’s more about exploring people’s mindsets in tense situations than about, you know, the alien being ripped out of someone’s chest.” Not that there’s anything wrong with an alien being ripped out of someone’s chest, it’s just that The Bradbury Tattoosis an ode to science fiction that relied more on story and character development than flashy special effects.

I don’t get excited about much beyond trying a new bourbon or the rare few minutes where I have literally nothing to do, but I’m pretty stoked about The Bradbury Tattoos. As someone who lived through the dark days of Cincinnati in the early 2000’s, seeing things like this come to life here makes me very happy. 

The Bradbury Tattooswill premiere at Memorial Hall on July 13 with a follow-up performance on July 22. The opera is a presentation of concert:nova, a contemporary-classical ensemble founded by musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Partial funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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