Causing All This Conversation

Tosca slays, creating some great legends

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Early critics sometimes panned Puccini’s Tosca, tossing it on a slagheap of criticism that included dismissing it as a “shabby little shocker” that was, in a word, vulgar.

But what are you going to do? Haters gonna hate.

Audiences love this opera, and it contains three meaty main roles for singers to sink their teeth into. Tosca’s seat at the table of perennial favorites, opera’s Big Ones, seem guaranteed. And that, in a word, means Tosca slays, which is to say the opera triumphs over haters – not to be confused with Tosca slays, which we know she does. So sorry, Scarpia.

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The title page of the Tosca piano score, published by G. Ricordi, 1899.

Like any great diva, this opera created legends. Some circle on the rims of opera history, others are well known. Here are some favorite anecdotes to emerge from the Tosca book of tales:

1. Legend of the Fall – an impish stagehand replaces the mattress needed to catch the actress playing Tosca for the finale with a trampoline, causing the singer to rebound into view after diving from the parapet.

2. The Lemming Effect – extras in the firing squad at the finale failed to be at final rehearsals, so the director instructed them to “follow the principal” offstage, meaning Spoletta. However, they thought Tosca was the principal, leaping from the parapet after her. No stories of this tale combined with the trampoline have been found, sadly.

3. Sometimes You Have to Bring a Fan to a Knife Fight – in the nail-biting poetic justice scene, the singer performing Tosca realized there’s no knife onstage and, making do, stabs Scarpia to death with her fan.

4. Lock, Stock and Once Smoking Barrel – poor Cavaradossi (well, the poor tenor playing Cavaradossi) experienced a really unfortunate occupational hazard when and improperly prepared stage rifle during the firing squad scene drew some real blood. This is not what we meant when we said Tosca slays.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Tosca on April 7 and 9. Get more info and tickets here.

The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

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Ami taking a nap with Ringo, an orphaned southern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo: Corey Rich Productions, from Ami’s Instagram)

Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.

In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.

Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.

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Baby panda at Chengu Panda Base in China. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?

Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.

CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?

AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.

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At Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Photos from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?

AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.

CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?

AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.

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Ramla Sharif roasting coffee in her home in Ethiopia. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA:  What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.

AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.

CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.

AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.

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Photos from Ami’s Instagram.

CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?

AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’

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Monks practicing a mask dance for the annual festival in Eastern Bhutan. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.

AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.

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This giraffe checks out Ami’s camera in Northern Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?

AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.

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A child on his way home from school in Sri Lanka. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.

AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.

CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?

AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.

CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.

AV:  Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.

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An elephant at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

Come see Ami on March 28 at 7pm in Ferguson Hall. Follow her on Instagram @amivitale and on Facebook.

Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.

Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target:

Seasons of Love

Adults around the world offer inspiration to LGBTQ youth through the It Gets Better Project.

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A scene from It Gets Better. Photo: Morten Kier.

In 2010, a series of teen suicides shocked the news cycle, shoving the real-life consequences of tormenting classmates into the national spotlight.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist and freshman at Rutgers University, leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly Facebook live-streamed Clementi in a romantic encounter. Seth Walsh, 13, of California, and Billy Lucas, 15, of Indiana, hanged themselves after non-stop verbal abuse by their middle school classmates. Asher Brown, 13, from Texas, shot himself for the same reason.

There are other stories across the generations, all equally horrifying, all the direct results of school bullying of kids who happened to be gay.

The psychological effect of ridicule, especially in middle school years, shapes the brain and taps into one of the greatest human fears: the fear of abandonment (being outcast from one’s community). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) young people, who report that they often have no adults in their lives who they can talk to about personal problems*, must face this hostile school world day after day after day. And, let’s face it, middle school and high school can be rough enough socially without the added pressures of dealing with someone else’s arbitrary judgment about sexual orientation.

It can seem, trapped in a well of ridicule, that life will never get better, that there’s no way out.

These LGBTQ suicide reports fell across the desk of syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who survived middle school and high school as a “semi-out gay man” and went on to create a really great life for himself. He decided to carry a very important, very vital message to the next generation of young people toughing it out in the often cruel heteronormative ball of confusion that is middle school and high school: it gets better.

Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, created a simple video, posted it on YouTube, and it went viral instantly. The It Gets Better Project was born, and adults around the world saw their chance to step up and offer hope to LGBTQ kids. The list of celebrity testimonies grew, as did the corporations who valued diversity, creativity and inclusivity: Apple, Google, Pearson Education, Pixar, Facebook and NASA all taped videos for the It Gets Better Project. So did the Fire Department of New York, the Austin Police Department and Lt. James “Jim” Young of Orlando PD.

In time, It Gets Better went on tour, stopping in cities around the country for week-long residencies with local LGBTQ youth to create a concert based on the unique experiences of those young people.

It Gets Better evolved from a simple message of hope to an entire out-and-open community specifically lifting up LGTBQ young people who need support making it through their toughest years. Community serves as a source of strength, and adults built a visible, accessible network through It Gets Better as living proof that every wonderful, vibrant, creative and resilient fiber of an LGBTQ person has a place in the world somewhere, with something unique and valuable to offer.

As NASA says in their video: “You are necessary.”

This year, It Gets Better arrives in Tampa, with a performance here at The Straz on March 24.


For more information on the show and tour, take a look here .

*from the Human Rights Campaign’s report “Growing up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings.”

Il Magnifico

Maestro Anton Coppola celebrates his 100th birthday. We are throwing one heck of a party.

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1917 was a big year.

The first woman was elected to Congress and the U.S. Navy appointed its first female petty officer that year as well. President Wilson declared war on Germany and Congress agreed, thus entering the United States into World War I.

In France, Giacomo Puccini premiered La Rondine in Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. Little did Puccini know that just six days prior a little boy had been born in the Italian ghetto of East Harlem who would, as of right now, be the oldest working Puccini master in the world.

On March 21, 1917, Anton Coppola arrived to Italian-American parents in a country that was not yet a superpower. He grew up in East Harlem with six brothers, a clan of men who made the Coppola name (and its spin-off names) as indelible to America’s artistic history as the Great War was to the history books. The line of Coppola descendants have been nominated 23 times for Academy® Awards, and Anton, our beloved first artistic director of Opera Tampa and international classical music icon, survives as the oldest living conductor who still composes religiously and devotes his life to opera.

A Puccini master, Maestro Coppola was taught by one of Puccini’s own students, so he embodies a direct lineage to the great composer. “He knows everything, has everything in his head. So he doesn’t need to reference the score – he knows Puccini better than any score,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi, who began her professional relationship with Maestro Coppola early in her career at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Lisi, herself an operaphile, launched an opera company at the Shubert that partnered with Yale’s opera master’s program. There she met Maestro. “We were doing a production with Yale students, so I met Maestro and said ‘why don’t you help me start an opera company?’ He said yes, and that’s how it all started,” Lisi says.

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Scenes from Maestro Coppola’s original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, which premiered at The Straz in 2001.

In their eight years in Connecticut, Lisi and Maestro Coppola produced 48 operas together, their creative power ending when she took the helm here. However, it wouldn’t be long before Lisi heard opera’s siren song wafting from the pristine concert hall stage in Morsani Hall. “When I stood on the stage, I thought ‘oh my gosh, they built an opera house.’ There was no formal professional company at The Straz, and I just knew what I wanted to do. It had been ten years since I’d worked with Maestro, but I called him and said I wanted to start an opera company in Tampa, and I couldn’t do it without him.”

Coppola, affectionately known as ‘the little general’ for his tough demands in rehearsal and no-nonsense communication style, barked at her, “Judith! I was waiting for this call!”

In 1995, Opera Tampa premiered with Puccini’s masterpiece, Madama Butterfly, under Maestro Coppola’s baton and the beaming, tear-filled eyes of a packed house at Morsani Hall.

The ensuing years brought triumph, glory, honor and exaltation to the opera season, growing an ardent following for Opera Tampa and an ongoing infatuation with Maestro Coppola’s brilliant gift at culling the best from performers and serving up one dazzling opera production after another. A crown jewel of Coppola’s tenure at The Straz was the world premiere of his heartfelt, contemporary, original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti.

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A Sacco and Vanzetti program, and other gems, from the Straz Center vault.

Just a lad when the two Italian-American anarchists were tried for a murder-robbery that occurred in South Braintree, Mass., Coppola carried the seed of his opera about the case for decades before it began to take form. The case, considered a gross miscarriage of justice toward immigrants that resulted in the electrocution of both men in 1927, landed in the trial-of-the-century category and certainly embedded itself in the collective conscious of Italian-Americans in particular. Coppola’s opera, an examination of the men’s humanity and a closer look at themes of justice, opened to rave reviews in 2001. “I told him we would do the opera, and we did,” Lisi says. “It was a huge hit. It got great reviews. To this day, I remain very, very proud of that opera and of the fact that the Straz Center produced it from scratch.”

This past summer, The New York Times caught up with Maestro Coppola in his Central Park West apartment, where he has lived since 1956, for a spotlight in their charming “Character Study” feature. In the article, writer Corey Kilgannon draws a deft portrait of the diminutive, silver-haired composer working in longhand at an old, green folding cardboard table at a window overlooking the park. Coppola is, Kilgannon notes, penning an original work for an upcoming event for Opera Tampa. Coppola has already completed one work for the event, an ode to a tree, titled “The Tree and Me.”

The event, of course, is our ever-popular Opera Tampa Gala, this year spectacularly themed in honor of Maestro Coppola’s 100th birthday. Maestro will conduct a concert of some of his favorite works as well as originals – including “The Tree and Me” and the work-in-progress captured in the Times. Selections from Maestro’s masterwork, Sacco and Vanzetti, round out the program.

Of course, you can expect a fair showing of Puccini.

“In all this time working together,” Lisi says, “we have become dear, dear friends. People come into your life and enhance it and enrich it in ways that you couldn’t dream. I’ve been fortunate to have this friendship with Maestro. He knows Puccini, he knows Verdi, he knows opera unlike anyone else. He made Puccini real for me. It’s not just notes on a page or an emotion captured by an orchestra or singer. He is among the greatest of the great transmitters of what it is all about.”

This video was created for Maestro Coppola’s farewell concert when he retired from Opera Tampa. See his return to The Straz at Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young on Saturday, Mar. 25.

“Opera is Emotion”

An intimate interview with Opera Tampa artistic director and conductor Daniel Lipton

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We are hot and heavy in the thick of opera season at The Straz, with Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella (La Cenerentola) behind us and the grand dame Tosca in rehearsals for April performances. We are fortunate to be able to boast that one of the most respected men in the opera world serves as artistic director and conductor for Opera Tampa, our resident opera company. A true man of the world, Maestro Daniel Lipton shuttles around the globe wherever great opera can be found: Paris, Sydney, Milan, London . . . and, of course, Tampa. He has worked with such opera companies as the Zürich Opera, Deutsche Oper, Opera Ontario, Orquesta Sinfonica de Colombia, and received the international accolade of Conductor of the Year in Europe for two consecutive years.

Caught in the Act caught up with Maestro Lipton to talk about this season with Opera Tampa and what excites him about the form and the future for opera in the Tampa Bay region.

CITA: Will you give us some insight into opera from your point of view?

DL:  My intention is to always present the highest quality possible, and with the success of last season, we knew we had an opportunity to keep growing. This year we are doing more with trying to bring the greatness of opera to everybody, from aficionados to newcomers. With everything going on in the world, everybody needs something positive in their lives. The magic and music of opera leads people to incredible emotions for the time they are with the performance. That magic operates on everyone—some people may negatively approach opera because they have never been to a live performance. On TV, it’s not the same. Opera is emotion. It’s never about something commonplace, not a “pass me the salt” art form. It reaches people deeply, and as someone becomes more familiar with an opera, it reaches deeper.

CITA: You’ve been around the world and seen so much opera—what’s off the charts and different out there and are you bringing that to Tampa?

DL:  Every time I see something of a high level that’s not been produced in Tampa, I think ‘we should bring this to Tampa.’ It would be nice to organize something special with some of the soloists I’ve seen, bringing them to Tampa. Also, all over the world new composers are making new work, bringing new music to opera audiences. There’s contemporary music by some wonderful young composers, and that’s the future—new Americans and other composers doing new things in the opera field. It’s very exciting. Tampa is on the map. Our auditions this year—we had exceptional singers. We’re establishing a reputation, and famous people are asking to come and sing in Tampa. That’s also very good for us.

CITA: What are you most excited about with the season we’re in right now with Opera Tampa?

DL: Here I have such an opportunity to work with a great team, and we have everything going in such a positive direction with Opera Tampa. We are all on the same wavelength and have the same kind of passion. The team here is just terrific. You don’t find that in other opera houses. There is a certain openness, so each person feels important and each talent is appreciated on its own. That’s a tremendous gift—to work in the kind of atmosphere we have here. So, I’m always the most excited about getting to work together for these operas. To work with such positive people is wonderful, and, in our case, our orchestra loves opera and playing opera—they are marvelous players.

Indiana Jones and the Lost Dinosaur

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim’s fabled adventure to find Spinosaurus is a grand tale—which he reveals at The Straz for his talk on Feb. 21. Here, we get behind-the-scenes info in an exclusive interview.

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Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, a young paleontologist who lives in Chicago, joined the ranks of the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer after his decade-plus journey to rediscover Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur, made international headlines. Originally discovered by scientist Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was destroyed one night in World War II when Allied bombs hit the Munich Museum. In elementary school, Nizar determined he would become the scientist who found the lost dinosaur. In a wild series of events almost too unbelievable for Hollywood, Dr. Ibrahim achieved his dream. He’ll tell you all about it right here in a few weeks, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him by phone to talk about his miraculous life, the importance of science and why all little kids go bananas over dinosaurs.

CITA: Let’s talk about this incredible story you have about finding Spinosaurus. It’s an Indiana Jones plot, complete with Nazis, chance encounters, everything. This was a long journey. What kept you searching, why didn’t you quit?

DR. NIZAR IBRAHIM: That’s a good question. It is a pretty incredible story, and it does have all of these elements. That’s really what makes this not your standard dinosaur discovery story—you go somewhere, you find a few bones, you put them together and that’s it. This story has so many layers and angles. There’s World War II, the discovery and destruction of ancient treasures from the age of dinosaurs, the fossil hunter who had a few bones who I was trying to find . . . and there’s the other aspects like the use of this modern, cutting-edge technology. There’s something for everyone in this presentation. It has history, science, adventure. So, I think that’s what makes it such a compelling story.

Why did I not quit? That’s also a good question. Because in many ways, this story unfolded a little bit like a . . . yes, like a Hollywood adventure movie. You think that certain things only happen in the movies like the chance encounter with the fossil hunter. You think . . . if you saw that in a movie you’d be like ‘yeah, right. Hollywood.’

But I think that … I am at the core very optimistic. Overly so. But you need this optimism and enthusiasm to keep you going. The discovery kind of absorbs you and becomes an obsession, I’d say, so the thought of giving up never crosses your mind. There was one moment I thought it wasn’t going to work out right before the big chance encounter, and I thought I was going to throw in the towel. I’d tried everything to find this mystery man. There were many difficult moments, but you have to persevere.  And, you know, these things require a lot of hard work. You put in so much hard work you say, I can’t quit. I’ve put in so much time and work and sweat and blood. I can’t quit. I have to see this through to the end. And that’s what happened. When it all comes together at the end it’s a real magical feeling. The disparate moments are part of the process.

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Spinosaurus (meaning “spine lizard”) lived in what now is North Africa about 112 to 97 million years ago. (Tyler Keillor and Lauren Conroy, University of Chicago.)

CITA: Can you give us a snapshot of what really blew your mind in the adaptations of Spinosaurus?

NI: I’ll try not to give too much away, but the arms and the legs of Spinosaurus blew my mind.

CITA: Because they didn’t match up?

NI: Not so much about them in relation to each other, but those two parts of the body have very unusual adaptations and unique adaptations not seen in any other dinosaur. The bone structure. Combine all these factors and you get a water-loving dinosaur.

CITA: We were transfixed by the similarities in skull structure and pressure sensors in Spinosaurus that are similar to alligators, which we have a lot of in Florida. Is it a stretch or accurate to say that our alligators are related to Spinosaurus?

NI: Well, yes and no. They are related, but the closest relative to dinosaurs is birds.  Birds are direct descendants of predatory dinosaurs, but we did look a lot at alligators when we were studying Spinosaurus because we do a lot of comparative anatomy. Alligators are really key to studying certain aspects of Spinosaurus anatomy, but just because animals look similar doesn’t mean they are closely related. We see similar kinds of adaptations over and over again in different groups of animals not closely related: torpedo shapes, for example. Snout shapes. Conical teeth for catching fish.

CITA: But Spinosaurus doesn’t shed teeth like an alligator or crocodile?

NI: No, dinosaurs shed their teeth all the time. That’s why we find so many dinosaur teeth. Sometimes in fossils we find the tooth underneath about to push the other tooth out. So, no need for dentists.

CITA: So, you’re not finding any dentists in the fossil record in the Northern Sahara?

NI [laughs]: That’s right.

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Rendering of Alanqa saharica. (Davide Bonadonna)

CITA: We kind of want your job except we’re worried we couldn’t handle the detail work in the lab after the field. We have one other question about relations, though—you discovered a flying reptile called Alanqa saharica. Is this guy related to pelicans?

NI: Not closely related, no. This is a completely different group of flying creatures. A Saharan pterosaur. Pterosaurs are kind of related to dinosaurs, but they’re not dinosaurs themselves. They evolved before bats did. There are only four groups who developed flight: insects, birds, pterosaurs and bats. They all evolved flight in different ways. If you compare bat wings to bird wings they look quite different. Pterosaurs are incredible creatures, the largest flying animals of all time. They pushed the boundaries of biomechanics. The Saharan pterosaur is the largest flying creature known from the African continent. We are working on new fossils right now that suggest that it grew to an even larger size than we had estimated.

CITA: The first wingspan was 20 feet. What are you looking at now?

NI: Now we’re looking at something closer to between 26-30 feet.

CITA: What! So, it’s like a small airplane.

NI[laughs]: Yes, it’s pretty impressive. It would have cast a rather terrifying shadow soaring above you. These animals are like studying aliens. It raises interesting questions.  How would this creature take flight? To give you an idea of size, when it was walking around on land with its wings folded, it would walk around on all fours with this long neck. It would be as tall as a giraffe.

CITA: How is that even possible? You’re blowing our minds.

NI: These things had large, very large muscles. We’re trying to figure out how they grew, how they flew. We have some fossils of hatchlings, so it’s an ongoing project. We’ve found new snake fossils of early snakes and understanding snake evolution. We described trace fossils like dinosaur tracks and burrows, so it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Spinosaurus is the most famous of this system, but there are many others. We’re trying to describe an entire lost world, an entire ancient ecosystem. This is a great opportunity to see how ecosystems change over time—over millions of years. We can look at the Sahara and see how things changed. We can see what happened when continents moved around, when the climate was going crazy, when the land was covered in giant predators.

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Nizar Ibrahim and team members in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: As you’re discovering, are you coming across information about the ecosystem that you can teach us like is the rain more acidic or is the composition of the atmosphere such that it creates better buoyancy for a bird this size?

NI: There are many questions we’re trying to answer. We are really just beginning to understand the Sahara, starting to shed light on this massive land mass. It’s important to understanding the history of life on earth. We’re understanding now how these animals are carving out ecological niches, the “arms race” as it were, for one of the most bizarre ecosystems of this planet’s history.

CITA: You work in the Kam Kam region between Morocco and Algiers in Northern Africa. Can you describe these conditions for us? Also, you’ve mentioned elsewhere you have to be aware of dangers from bandits and smugglers—what’s that all about?

NI: Yeah, one of the reasons we know so little about the dinosaurs of the Sahara versus all the information we have from Wyoming or Colorado is because it’s such a challenging area. You have to bring supplies for an entire team, there are no roads. It’s not easy. You do face the desert challenges like sandstorms and snakes, but the Sahara is also, to a certain extent, a lawless place. There’s no police station around the corner. It’s a vast ocean of sand and rocks. You read in the news that there are groups looting in the Sahara, and there are armed groups. So, you need a military escort in some areas. They will keep an eye on you from a distance or they have to stay with you at all times. It’s the kind of place where every now and then a foreigner is kidnapped.  Items get smuggled across borders. It’s challenging, but it’s the ultimate frontier for paleontology. Things that we uncover there . . . there is always the chance that we’ll find something that may revolutionize our field or at the very least shake up things precisely because we know so very little. In Montana, you might find another T. rex, but in Africa, it’s huge areas of land that have never been explored before. To give you an idea of scale, the whole desert is about the same size of the United States.

CITA: So, you’d be working in, say, the New Jersey part.

NI[laughs]: Yeah, you could say that.

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Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Ernst Stromer’s monographs, 1915.

CITA: During your adventure to find Spinosaurus, you located Ernst Stromer’s granddaughter, who still lives in the family castle. How did it feel when you met her? And, later, how did you feel when you finally saw the life-sized rendering of Spinosaurus from the bones you found?

NI: Well, meeting Stromer’s granddaughter was really something. When you’re working as a scientist you work from the people who came before you, but they tend to be just names. You don’t really find out much about them. With Stromer, it was different because I really entered his world. I was trying to find out more about his expeditions, then before I knew it I was visiting places he went and trying to track down his family castle. That’s when I learned his granddaughter was alive and looking after the castle in Bavaria. Restoring Stromer’s legacy became part of the story. It wasn’t about just finding the dinosaur anymore. He was a very inspiring human being. You know, it was a strange feeling first going to the castle. There were black and white pictures of the expedition that uncovered Spinosaurus and his handwritten notes and journal. Incredible things. Handwritten letters, letters about the finds and one to his sons in the war. He lost two of his three sons in the war. So much drama. His science career was going so well for him, he’d made all these incredible discoveries, yet in a few years he lost everything. To walk around the family castle in Bavaria was special. It was very emotional. So, restoring Stromer’s work became a part of what I was doing.

Seeing the skeleton for the first time . . . was love at first sight. Experts assembled the skeleton in a computer. But seeing it life size . . . You can read the numbers on the computer, so you know this creature is about 60 feet in length, but it’s only when you see it mounted in front of you that you appreciate the actual size of this river monster. Standing next to its giant head, I remember one of the first things I thought was what if I was swimming next to this in that ancient river system? How would I feel as this thing was sort of peering at me. Giant jaws. A water-living dinosaur trying to catch you in the water. Incredible, formidable predator. That’s the first time I was able to appreciate the creature’s sheer size. Spinosaurus for me is fascinating because of all the weird adaptations it has, but most people will remember it’s even longer than T. rex. The first time I saw it mounted I appreciated it for the size.

CITA: So, could you contextualize that size for us? Is it like the length of two city buses?

NI: I don’t know about two city buses, but it’s much longer than one city bus. One of the crocs we have from this period is the length of a city bus, and this croc is quite a bit shorter than Spinosaurus. Actually, I do remember trying to find a good example for size that would explain 60 feet in length, but I couldn’t find anything common enough to make the comparison. When you see it on the big screen and the images I show, will help you get a picture of it life-sized.

CITA: You’ve said in other interviews you were about 6 or 7 years old when you decided to find Spinosaurus. You were a dinosaur kid. What was the first dinosaur you fell in love with?

NI: I don’t know a straightforward answer. I don’t know when it started with dinosaurs. I know I was drawing dinosaurs at 5 years old. I wrote my name and age next to a picture I made, so it provided a date stamp of when it sort of started. Around that time, I went to the natural history museum and saw these towering skeletons. So many dinosaurs were incredible, these mythological dragons, but yet they were real animals in real ecosystems. They weren’t imaginary. They existed at some point. I loved all the famous dinosaurs, all the North American dinosaurs like T. rex.  The thing about Spinosaurus that got me interested was that it wasn’t one of the famous dinosaurs, like T. rex or stegosaurus. It was more interesting—giant spines on his back and was enormous, but that’s all we knew. Spinosaurus hadn’t captured the imagination yet, like the others, it was so mysterious. We didn’t know what it looked like, it was the yeti or Loch Ness Monster—that elusive dinosaur, except it was real. I think that’s what got me interested, and the entire ecosystem Spinosaurus lived in. We know virtually nothing of the north Sahara like we do parts of North America.

CITA: You’re in this north Sahara frontier exploring. It’s gotta be exciting to come across the possibilities of what could have existed in this ecosystem. This was a lush, tropical wetlands brimming with predators and nobody really knew what they were eating.  You realized you’d discovered with Spinosaurus a semi-aquatic, fish-eating predator. They ate sawfish. We still have sawfish in Florida waters today.

NI: They’re not the same kind of sawfish, but they are similar. The sawfish that we have in our [Cretaceous North African] river system is freshwater, about 25 feet in length, and sawfish today get big but not that big. And there were other fish, the giant car-sized coelacanth. Let me tell you about the ecosystem with Spinosaurus. When you’re out there in the desert you really appreciate what we call deep time, that’s what we call geologic time. You appreciate that while you’re in the desert. It’s a big, hot place. The last thing you’re thinking about are fish and rivers. But the fossils you’re picking up are the backbones of giant fish or scales of huge lungfish or armor plates of giant crocodile-like predators. You start to piece together this ecosystem in your mind, and you can paint a pretty accurate picture.

If we could travel back in time 100 million years, and I’ll take you back in time in this Nat Geo show, what we see is this vast river ecosystem that stretched across Africa, across the Sahara, that was the size of the United States. Back in that time, our planet was really going through these hothouse conditions, these extremes in temperatures. It was quite arid overall—no ice on the poles, so the dinosaurs were experiencing violent storms, not very stable conditions and it was very dry. Then you have these giant river systems where all the biodiversity is concentrated. The animals are huge, absolutely enormous. I call this ecosystem the River of Giants.

You have 6 or 7 different kinds of giant freshwater sharks, a giant car-sized coelacanth, lungfish, crocodile-like predators, all of these creatures live in this river system, which must have been incredibly productive. You also have pterosaurs, Spinosaurus, flying reptiles and one thing we found out is that many of the predators in this ecosystem were relying on fish, even predators who were not specialized fish eaters at all. Spinosaurus took advantage of this abundant food supply, this semi-aquatic dinosaur was perfectly adapted to hunt giant coelacanths.

It’s a really bizarre ecosystem because the dinosaurs common to other ecosystems we know are not very common to this one. So, it’s a predator’s paradise. We have no modern equivalent or one from the dinosaur times, either.

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River of Giants by Davide Bonadonna. National Geographic Magazine, October 2014.

CITA: Now that we have an expert, we hope you can answer a riddle for us. Which is: why do you think it is that little kids everywhere love dinosaurs?

NI [laughs]: Quite a few people from different backgrounds have tried to answer this question and they’ve come up with quite a few hypotheses. Some people think that dinosaurs are, yes, big and scary but they’re extinct, so they can’t really harm you . . . kids can exert some control over these monsters by learning their names and facts about them.  I don’t know. Others say dinosaurs represent our parents, that kids are terrified of their parents and impressed with everything their parents can do. Parents are so powerful. So, dinosaurs represent Daddy and Mommy and all the power they have. However, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the curiosity. First, there are lots of kinds of extinct creatures. And not all of them are very popular. Dinosaurs are in a league of their own. I think dinosaurs push the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re the largest land animals of all time, some weighed as much as a whole herd of elephants. They ruled this planet 118 million years—for a very, very long time. I think that’s something that captures the imagination because we’ll never be around for that long. These creatures were around a long time and that alone captures the imagination of people. The best explanation I can think of is that dinosaurs are so bizarre. They are, in many ways, unlike any animals alive today. Look at a mammoth. It’s hairy, but it sort of looks like an elephant, so it’s familiar. Dinosaurs have all these incredible adaptations, skulls and frills . . . when you work with these guys it’s like working with extraterrestrials from outer space. It’s unlike any animal around today. There’s no modern day equivalent. When it was time to look at physiology or biology you’re really kind of starting from scratch. The fact that they’re so alien-looking and from this alien world from their time on this planet; I think that’s what happens. People ask me about kids, why they love them so much, but it’s really everyone. In these Nat Geo series, you see all kinds of people, people in their 30s, 40s, 80s . . . I don’t think there are many people who walk into the museum with these dinosaur skeletons and don’t stand in awe. Very few are like, “oh, whatever.” To get to experience the reality that dinosaurs existed—the imagination goes wild.

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

CITA: As we’re trying to understand the scope of “deep time” you work with, we’re thinking about perspective. Most of us live by to-do lists or calendar apps, and everything feels so important today, or for the next four years, or all this talk about the-world-is-going-to-end. But, you have a different perspective working in deep time. How does that affect your understanding of news, of modern society? When you’re out in the Sahara, do you ever imagine ‘what is the geologic record going to hold from these millennia, what will be left behind from us’?

NI: I think it helps to have this deep time perspective, and I think it would help us as humans to act smarter when it comes to making sure that we can be on this planet for as long as possible. If we want to understand things like long-term changes in climate or extinction or crisis in biodiversity, we must have this perspective of deep time. We’re trying to understand these things but we don’t understand long-term effects. We have numbers and data, so we can create models and predictions in a computer, but the only way to really understand how ecological changes play out in the long term on planet Earth is to travel back in time. These things have happened in the past: massive extinction events, dramatic changes in climate, all kinds of things, and we can see what happened to ecosystems and how they recovered.

One thing we do know looking into deep time  . . .  you know, one of the things people are worried about is that we might destroy all life on this planet, and it will be the end of planet earth. I think we shouldn’t worry about destroying the planet because I think we overestimate our power a bit. One thing that is pretty obvious is that our planet is going to recover at some point.  We are in the process of destroying a lot of biodiversity, and that is a real crime.

But the truth is—in a few million years, our planet is going to recover but humans won’t be around. We should protect our ecosystem. If we don’t care about plants or animals that we share this planet with, we should at least try to preserve the planet for selfish reasons because if we continue to act the way we are at the moment, it will be the end of humans on this planet. There will be a huge crisis in biodiversity, but some life forms will survive. Our planet is going to recover, and it will be fine in a few million years without humans around. It’s in our own interest to take better care of our planet. What we’re doing to ecosystems, and oceans, rainforests, and coral reefs, you name it, is ultimately going to harm us. And that is going to be a quite painful process [for humans to endure]. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us. We need the resources, the water, the food. So it’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of humans [to the planet’s survival].

What you mentioned is an interesting question because we are so focused on this tiny little slice of time that we call the present, as if that is all that matters, but if you are a paleontologist or a geologist, you can step back and see how tiny this slice of time is.

What is going to be left behind if some alien civilization finds earth one day . . .what are they going to find? The answer is difficult to tell, but the things we think are important are probably not going to be preserved in the geological records. Sometimes when you look at a geological section, you find gaps of a few million years missing. And we go, “oh! Three or four million years is missing, not a big deal.” But, as you know, that’s much longer than we’ve been around. You can have gaps from geological processes, so human activity could be missing from the geologic record altogether. Again, we should not overstate our importance. In a few million years, there may not be that much left that we could leave behind.

There’s one thing I think these extraterrestrial scientists would see is a big crisis in biodiversity, a mass extinction, like the one that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. And this one was—hopefully they could figure this out–caused by us, for the most part. There are always some plants and animals going extinct, what you call “background extinction,” and every now and then something very unusual happens. It could be a massive vulcanism, it could be a meteorite impact, or it could be the arrival of homo sapiens. It takes the planet a long time to recover, but it does. That’s one thing they’d see for sure: a mass extinction. Let’s hope they can’t figure out what we did to our planet because we won’t look very good in their history books.

CITA: Perhaps these extraterrestrial scientists will see the layers of fossils and find one thin sheet of plastic which will be all that is left of our time on earth.

NI[laughs]: That’s a possibility. The other thing is that it’s important to have this deep time perspective because it teaches us humility, which is something we always need. I often compare it to astronomy. If you talk to astronomers, they understand we are so small in space and insignificant in many ways. Paleontology is similar because we see how tiny we are in time. So we combine those two and that’s a hefty dose of humility.

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Nizar Ibrahim in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: We’re looking forward to you coming to share your stories of discoveries with us. What else should we know?

NI: Well, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you mentioned that you might not have the patience to go to the lab. People often think of paleontology as this work that goes out and collects fossils then puts them together, but it’s really so much more than that. And, it never really gets boring. You do have lab work, but that is always interesting. Sometimes you’re looking at the microstructure of dinosaur bones or another day you might be putting together a digital skeleton, or studying the chemical composition of the bones and what that tells you about the lifestyle of the animal. You teach students and lead expeditions, and do this National Geographic Live series. It’s the intersection of many fields—you never get bored and you’re not restricted to one academic box. You use tools from many different areas, and that’s worth mentioning.

One of the most rewarding things for me is to see how excited people get about science and exploration. I got a letter from someone coming to the show, and she’s flying in with her son to the Straz Center for the talk. It’s his seventh birthday present, and they’re flying all the way in from New Mexico. We have a wider impact beyond scientific exploration to affecting people, and an experience can change someone’s life. Children see the show and say ‘I want to do this, I’m going to be a scientist.’ That’s exciting.

CITA: That’s an amazing story! We see all the time the direct impact the performing arts have on children’s lives. And, for children who are here to see someone like you—who, at seven years old, decided to find dinosaurs. We hope that child asks you a question during the Q&A at the end. That story warms our hearts.

NI: His mom says he might be [laughs] ah, um, a little star struck. [laughs] So, I told her maybe we could do a meet and greet before or after the show. But yes, museums and performing arts centers are so important to culture. Ask any scientist how it began, and they’ll tell you ‘my parents took me to a museum at five years old’ or ‘I read a National Geographic story’ and these experiences create the passion. I’m trying to make sure young people in Morocco are exposed to this spark of curiosity. We need scientists and innovators, and these events trigger a real passion for culture.

I was just in Africa for a conference, and I told them there—as Africa has huge areas of cultural desert—and I said, it’s really terrible. Look at a place like London, for example, and you take away the culture, the museums, everything, then what’s left? A cold and souless place. That’s how you know how important a vibrant cultural landscape is.

CITA: Yes, yes, yes. We agree. Culture is the soul of humanity. We’re looking forward to seeing you here. There will be a huge audience who loves your work who will be eager to ask more questions at the end of your talk.

NI: Thank you and see you soon.