An opera for the space-ages opens this weekend at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath. “One Way Trip to Mars,” written by husband and wife duo Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness of Phippsburg, combines the story of one man’s epic journey to Mars, and his wife’s desperate attempt to chase after him.
“One Way Trip to Mars” follows the hero, Paolo, as he wins a worldwide competition to become the first human to travel to Mars. The mission is a one-way trip, so Paolo must relinquish everything he’s ever known — including his wife, Cassandra — for the glory of being the first man to reach the red planet. But on his way to Mars, nuclear war on earth knocks out communications to Paolo’s spaceship. In a last ditch effort to save humanity, the space agency sends Cassandra barreling toward Mars in her own spaceship, in hopes that the two will continue the human race on the red planet.
Alexander became inspired to write a rock opera a few years ago when he learned about the Mars One mission, which proposes to send everyday people from around the globe on a one-way trip to Mars. He’s also been intrigued by Space-X’s Elon Musk, and the billionaire’s plan to start a permanent colony on the red planet in the next few decades.
“It’s very timely,” said Alexander. “Tens of thousands of people have signed up to potentially go on this (Mars One) mission, knowing its a one-way trip and quite possibly a suicide mission. My wife and I were intrigued by this prospect. We were also intrigued about the (loved ones) left behind.”
Harkness felt the same way.
“I started thinking about what I’d heard in the news with Mars One,” Harkness said. “It’s so interesting and ironic, it’s Mars, it’s space travel, but how can people feel so excited when people are signing up for this thing to leave the planet forever, leaving everyone behind? You have some really extreme psychological experiences here.”
“It’s really a story of love and consciousness,” said Alexander, adding that he wants to provide the entire framework of the plot up front because the opera transpires through song. “When we first sat down and conceived the story, we thought of doing something with time travel. But we narrowed it down to realistic themes instead.”
“There’s an irony to space travel,” Harkness added. “It’s such an exciting thing but we have so much right here at home. We have this need for love, and if you’re out there in the universe you don’t have that.”
And at the end of the day, he said, love is the most universal of themes.
“One Way Trip to Mars” is told with an onstage chorus accompanied by a live band. Much of the story-telling is done visually with the projection of images, and there are only two actors, none other than Alexander and Harkness themselves. The duo came up with original songs as they were working out the opera’s plot, gearing each piece toward a specific plot point.
“This is our first time doing anything of this magnitude,” said Alexander. “We have produced an album together, but this is our first opera. Just like everything else, if we’d known how much difficulty there would be we probably wouldn’t have started. It was really hard for awhile … but everything is coming together now.”
Alexander said he has extreme confidence in his entire crew.
“There are way more pieces than we realized,” Alexander said. There is an eclectic combination of musicians who contribute to the opera, including Bath-based Hollowbody Electric Band, Raging Brass Horns, Vox Chamber Choir, a reggae band, classical cellists, a flamingo dancer and even rappers.
“We are really looking forward to presenting this to the public,” said Alexander.
Jennifer DeChant of Chocolate Church Arts Center said that “One Way Trip to Mars” is coming to the theater at the perfect time.
“We’re really interested in continuing to foster local endeavors like this,” Dechant said. “(The opera) is perfectly in line with our mission.”
Folks can catch “One Way Trip to Mars” on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 at the door. For more information visit chocolatechurcharts.org.
Lorry Fleming’s article from the Coastal Journal:
Would you take a ‘One Way Trip to Mars’? Rock opera debuts at Chocolate Churchby Lorry Fleming Coastal Journal contributor
BATH — Year- round, the Chocolate Church offers an impressive range of entertainment, from local theater productions to national musical acts, holiday family fare and even risqué adult humor. The historic Gothic venue hosts its first homegrown “rock opera” this weekend when “One Way Trip to Mars” debuts, a rock-n-roll stage spectacle created by musicians Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness.
“One Way Trip to Mars” is supported largely by Alexander and Harkness’s own group, the Hollowbody Electric Band, and textured with a wide variety of musical styles, among them Portland’s own Raging Brass Reggae (traditional ska/reggae), soprano Nacole Palmer, members of Vox Nova Chamber Choir, and blues/pop vocalist Mehuman Johnson.
Add in additional rap by The Riverbottom’s Timothy Goad, and dance flavors by Ashley Steeves, and the night certainly promises to be a musical melting pot.
While the production is aptly titled, inspired by the real life Mars One space project, Alexander says it’s about so much more than the possibilities of going to Mars, which becomes a bit more fathomable every day.
“It’s a story of emotional and spiritual transformation, feminine empowerment, and the transcendent power of love,” Alexander said.
Don’t let the weight of those words scare you. The idea came to Harkness two years ago, as news of the Mars One project broke, announcing the search for people willing to give up everything for a one-way ticket to Mars. (The first manned trips are planned for 2026.)
“I got the idea for the story when I started writing a song from the perspective of a woman whose life partner leaves her to go on this one way trip to Mars,” Harkness said. “I’m pretty sure the whole world is full of people wondering the same thing: What would it be like for the ones left behind?”
The story is set in 2030, and the protagonist, Paolo, is chosen to be the first human on Mars. He prepares to leave his wife and his life on earth behind.
“Paolo can’t help but assume the grandiosity the world imbues him with in the need to create a hero with almost God-like qualities,” Harkness, who is a psychotherapist by day, said. “Only his partner, Cassandra, sees his vulnerability. To her, he is an Icarus on an ill-fated mission, made worse by the fact that he chooses ego over connection.”
Using lyrical witticism and theatrical spectacle to tell the story of the glory-seeking astronaut and his beleaguered wife, “One Way Trip to Mars” promises an evening of top-notch musicianship and thought-provoking entertainment. While one might call it a rock opera, it veers from the campy drama of David Bowie, or the linear story telling of The Who.
“There aren’t specific characters singing in an operatic style or acting out parts,” explained Alexander, a musician influenced by The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. “The story is told through a series of musical vignettes, and through dance, narration, short film clips, and projected images. There are theatrical elements in the stage presence of the musicians, and in the lighting and sound.”
Alexander and Harkness worked hard to ensure an enticing array of aural and visual treats.
“Mehuman Johnson is a singer/songwriter with a robust, sultry and soulful style who has toured all over the world,” Alexander said. Johnson has opened for artists like Nora Jones.
Soprano Nacole Palmer, who plays a prominent role in “One Way Trip,” recently moved to Bath from New York, where she performed both at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Some 18 members of the Brunswick-based Vox Nova Chamber Choir will appear, with musical arrangements and guidance by Vox Nova director Shannon Chase.
Chase saw it as an opportunity she couldn’t pass up; she once played keyboards in the pit of a “Tommy” production.
“Peter and Johanna are friends of mine, and they’ve been attending Vox Nova concerts for years. I agreed to put together a chorus of singers for the show,” she said.
Chase hears a connection in the music of Harkness and Alexander to the classic rock artists who first produced concept albums and “operatic” rock works decades ago. “I made immediate connections to classic rock bands when I first heard their songs,” she said. “It plays like a song list of music you’ve known and loved all your life. “
Harkness says creating the work was “pure joy,” even with the challenges of blending a rock-n-roll aesthetic with the “conventionally trained classical music world,” and figuring out how to fuse the mindsets of the creative musicians and the tech gurus.
“Hearing it all come together is where the magic happens,” she said.
She gives props to Courtney Babbidge, who is orchestrating and transcribing the entire work for future iterations. The light show is designed by light, sound and IT wiz Mike Gudroe, and the show’s special effects and sound are by engineer Derek Roe, with Moonlighting Production Services in Portland.
So, would Alexander and Harkness (not only a musical duo, but partners in marriage, as well) ever take a one-way ticket to Mars?
“No way! We think the idea is crazy,” Alexander said. “A much better use of resources would be to clean up the environmental mess the human race has been making right here on planet earth.”
“One Way Trip to Mars” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.
The Chocolate Church is located at 804 Washington St. For more information and tickets, call 442-8455 or visit chocolatechurcharts.org.
Lorry Fleming is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the band performing for “207” on Portland’s NBC affiliate.
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