Librettist’s Performance Journal: Monday

Cross-posted from

Monday, 23 April 2018

Today the production moves into the performance space at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford and begins to set up. Over the next few days, the singers will be learning how the blocking works in the space, and both the vocalists and instrumentalists, conducted by Dan D’Addio, will be learning how the acoustic of the space works, and starting to run all three pieces all the way through in preparation for the performance. The production staff is getting all of the props and set materials finalized. Director Kristy Chambrelli is keeping everyone focused and calm, making sure each rehearsal progresses.

There will be a lab set that comes on stage three times. The props for it include beakers, bottles, bowls, tweezers, spoons, and glow sticks. Yep, glow sticks. Curie repeatedly referred to the “fairy light” and “glow” of radium. It enchanted her: she carried vials of isolated radium around in her pockets even when she wasn’t working in the lab. Curie’s own lab notebooks and even household objects are still so radioactive because of their proximity to her work with radioactive elements that in order to work with them, researchers have to wear protective clothing and limit their exposure time.

This glow was seductive. Before people recognized the risks of radium, it was hailed as a healthful cure-all. As Pierre Curie sings:

We can use it
for the truly ill—
to cure
TB and VD and strep,
arthritis and gout,
to hasten the knitting of bones,
to help the weak grow strong,
to give energy to the fatigued.

It will remove your growths, your grey hair!
It will warm your cold, sore feet!
It will improve your sex drive!
It will cure your shakes!

Drink it in your water!
Smooth it on your face!
Add it to your butter,
add it to your paint,
bathe in salts that gently glow

bathe in its gentle, healing glow.

Jessica knew immediately what kind of tone Pierre’s aria should take: he needed to sound like a stereotypical used-car salesman. He also needed to sound like he really believed in all of this—which he did—but at the same time, he needed to sound just that bit over the top in selling a product whose properties he knows he truly doesn’t fully know yet.

Pierre Curie was largely self-taught, a self-motivated polymath who could be interested in dozens of things at the same time or deeply focused on a single idea. His mind was, as my scientist spouse puts it, full of cats all chasing individual red dots. At the same time, Pierre could be lazy: he’d figure out something to his satisfaction and abandon it without writing up his findings or publishing them, moving on to the next thing. In the opera, he sings

My education had been haphazard:
it was not broad but deep.
And when struck with an idea
I could lose myself in it forever,
forgetting everyone and everything else.
I believed that fate had chosen me to
delve into most mysterious questions
of the universe.

Among other things, he was interested in theosophy and spiritualism and using scientific instruments to prove the existence of ghosts.

Marie had to push him to finish his doctorate so that they could get the funding needed for their research. Even then Marie did a good deal of the actual lab work while Pierre sought out potential funders and talked up the amazing things they could do with radium. Some advertisements and products of the period speak to the Curies’ hopes:

Alfred Curie–no relation to Marie or Pierre–nonetheless capitalized on their name in selling Tho-Radia beauty products worldwide.


Irradiated butter and other foodstuffs were sold during the early 1900s.
Radium cigarettes


A method for infusing your water with radium.
Various radium products were said to invigorate your sex drive.















Today, many people have read or heard about the “Radium Girls,” women who worked in watch-making factories during the 1910s and 20s painting the watch faces with radium paint. To shape their brushes to very fine points, their bosses encouraged them to use their lips, telling them to “lip, dip, paint,” to save time and money on shaping brushes with rags or dipping their brushes in water. The workers also painted their nails with radium paint and sometimes used it on their faces. This led to radium poisoning and devastating consequences: women’s jaws disintegrated, their spines collapsed, and they developed various cancers. Their lawsuit against their employers over workplace safety was a major landmark in labor history.

But Pierre died before these dangers were confirmed—and Marie never admitted that her “beautiful radium” could be so dangerous, which is a major point of the opera.

Tomorrow: on using Marie Curie’s own words.