Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 404:
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 404.

Tonight, let's go to the opera. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's midnight. I'm just back from a dress rehearsal of Samson and Delilah at the Houston Grand Opera. Dress rehearsals are much like regular performances. But you can still see the makings of the opera. Tonight a small army on the main floor is armed with lap boards, soft reading lamps, TV screens, and cameras. Tonight I might've stumbled into NASA mission control.

Young women with head mikes and clipboards move about, softly cuing and correcting what they see. A huge communications web is still visible. It won't be tomorrow. Delilah's makeup was harsh and pasty in her first scene. Now, they've put it right. She looks lovely. A great beehive of cooperative technology whispers under the pianissimos.

We're in a box seat. One of the skirts behind the proscenium is gaping. It'll be closed tomorrow night. But now I make out singers in the darkness. They pace in brown concentration -- relaxing, focusing, running lines in their heads.

Then it hits me. In all my life as an engineer, this is the most technically dense world I've ever known. The musical instruments took thousands of years to evolve. Each violin, each flute, is a memorial to untold human ingenuity. The musical scores could only be written after musical notation evolved for 800 years. The music itself is much more than Saint-Saens's brilliance. It also reflects Darwinian selection among tonal systems and rhythmic schemes.

Opera has shaped vocal technique, set design, and theatrical devices for 350 years. Mathematical acoustics had to evolve for 150 years before it could produce this hall. The communications web is made from state-of-the-art electronics. Over 200 athletes and high-level technicians work below. An NBA game, or a shuttle launch, seems simple by comparison.

Now a smoldering Delilah sings to Samson: "My beauty is in vain." Of course it isn't in vain at all. Samson doesn't have a chance. He's transfixed by her guile. And we are transfixed by the guile, and the passion, of 200 people working in millisecond precision to tell us how her treachery took Samson down.

Tomorrow, the house will be full. Gone will be the shadowy directors and prompters. Gone the gap behind the proscenium. The audience will be carried up, right into the wild, doomed Temple of Dagon. Tomorrow, only Samson's pain and his dying triumph will remain visible. But by the third act last night I, too, had suspended my disbelief. By the third act I'd entirely forgotten that all this magic is man-made.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)



From an 1882 German Bible



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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