“EXTINCTION: A Love Story” began as an idea for a touring puppet opera, dreamed up by my self and Jon Linford (who was then director of the Dona Ana Lyric Opera at New Mexico State University). We spent an afternoon in his office throwing ideas back and forth until we both got a chill down our back when we knew we had something. The “love story” of EXTINCTION was taking shape. But Jon was busy that season, and finally told me to take the idea and do what I could with it on my own.
The “idea” sat idle for a few years until I found myself in Colorado one winter helping Gary Staab (a “paleoartist”: www.staabstudios.com) complete a display of Eocene critters for the new Utah Field Museum of Natural History in Vernal, Utah. We spent weeks together in his shop in the mountains above Denver talking about geologic time, evolution, art and politics. It was during these conversations that the enormity of geologic time became real to me, and almost comprehensible as I realized that dinosaurs would have been kicking up fossils of long-extinct creatures -- would have, in fact, been walking on the fossils of earlier dinosaurs (they did, after all, “thrive” as a species for 160 million years). It was this image of a dinosaur turning over a fossil that stuck with me as a touchstone for the other half of story of EXTINCTION. Now I was ready to move forward, and began to write songs and scenes.
When (Tony Award-winning playwright) Mark Medoff and I talked over coffee about his vision for helping the local opera develop new work, I told him about my “work-in-progress”. And so I now had a workshop date to aim for, and went to work in earnest.
I teamed up with Cathy Carver, a pianist and engraver, who took the songs I would sing into a cassette player (often accompanying myself on guitar) and carefully transcribed them, after which we would sit side by side for hours refining the tunes. Cathy would then create the piano score for rehearsals. And so we worked for two summers, but health and scheduling problems on Cathy’s end meant that I had to take over the transcription work during the second workshop and into the staged production in October of 2007. Having learned the notation software, I went ahead and arranged the show myself (out of necessity as much as anything else) and so I was book-writer, composer, lyricist, arranger and music copyist for the production (a feat I don’t care to repeat).
I’ve come to feel that one reason for the shocking number of people who dismiss the theory of evolution is how poorly the underlying principles of the theory are communicated (or, more to the point, NOT communicated). For me the turning point in really grasping how life evolved came when I could finally appreciate the incredible depth of geologic time. When you know how much time life had to evolve in, it is not so baffling to understand.
It became important to me from the start to have the most solid science underlie this story, so when it came to “casting” the dinosaurs, I talked to my state’s leading paleontologist to choose creatures that were all living at the end of the late Cretaceous and had been found in New Mexico and so could have, conceivably, “met”. Dr. Nancy McMillan (geochemist and Geology Department head at NMSU) was a friend that just “happened” to specialize in the study of the K/T (Cretaceous/Tertiary) event/boundary became a constant and enthusiastic source of geologic information and a sounding board for all things scientific.
And then there was, of course, Mark Medoff to act as dramaturge and director. We had worked together on several projects over the years (most recently my own one-man show about the artist John Singer Sargent – see MADAME X on this website) and so fell into a familiar rhythm of shaping and refining this project.
Of course this if a fanciful tale -- transferring a human story into the lives of dinosaurs -- yet it remains a story true to the dinosaurs because us humans are now simply living out our own chapter of the same story of life on the same planet that was once “theirs”. So, talk about universal themes – these span millions, no, billions of years!
This musical is my sermon, and my delight in life and love and understanding. I want to keep working it until it communicates all of that to the audience. Thank you for your time and interest in EXTINCTION: A Love Story.
"Big Butt of the Eocene", a cartoon I made while working with paleoartist Gary Staab on his Uintatheres for Utah's Field Museum of Natural History.
Jessica Medoff-Bunchman and Isaac Quiroga perform in the staged production of EXTINCTION: A Love Story. New Mexico State University, October 2007. Costumes by Deb Brunson.
Detail from my painting "Digs Old Guys". I used Gary Staab's cast of an Allosaur skull for this painting, and we used the image for the production materials for EXTINCTION: A Love Story.
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