Today is the 160th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth. Tesla was a seer of electricity, whose vision of a world transformed with an electric grid powered by his alternating current system surely seemed like a wild dream in the late 19th century. Tesla is claimed as a hero in both Serbia and Croatia, having been born and raised Serbian in what’s now Croatia—a treasured icon, kind of a cross between Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln.
Exactly ten years ago, I was in Belgrade for the premiere of Violet Fire, the opera about Tesla that I worked on as librettist with composer Jon Gibson, along with many other hugely talented artists and performers. Our opera had been invited there as part of a celebration of Tesla’s 150th birthday. In fact, Violet Fire’s opening night fell on Tesla’s birthday, July 9 (he’s popularly supposed been born on midnight between July 9 and 10).
My week in Belgrade was wonderful, nerve-wracking—as theater can be—and surreal. The first performance went well. The next night, many of us went to see another performance in the Belgrade summer arts festival (BELEF)—this one by Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde musician/artist who counts Tesla as an inspiration. After the performance I got pulled backstage to meet Ms. Anderson, and told her how much I’ve been inspired by her work.
I found myself in a dim bar-like room, with Laurie Anderson and Nikola Tesla—well, a performance artist dressed in Tesla’s distinctive formal attire, who had made appearances in various locations in downtown Belgrade that day. Several Croatians were there, including a tall young woman who was an aspiring filmmaker—and an actual descendant of Tesla. The group of us left the theater, led by the festival’s director through the balmy summer night to the open plaza of Republic Square.
There under the stars, across from the National Theater where our opera was still running, we joined a crowd of people in and around a strange looming structure—an ad-hoc building glowing blue from inside. This was Cluster, its maker explained to me—a participatory software project, housing multiple computers and sharing freely with all visitors. It was an inspired tribute to Tesla, who had envisioned sharing the fruits of his work freely with the world.
I felt like I had wandered inside a dream—walking with Tesla’s ghost, his great-grand niece and Laurie Anderson down dark streets to discover a pulsing blue thought-cluster. And this feeling, I’m realizing now, is something like what I struggle to describe about Tesla and his legacy. Our increasingly wireless world, with its lit-up nights, its virtually free streaming data, its electric cars, is an embodiment of Tesla’s visions for the future. We are living inside his dream.
Tesla also imagined the future as a peaceful place where war would be obsolete, where women would be equal to men, and we’d all be knitted together in a hive of productive work. Right now this all seems very far away from the intractable problems, suffering and discord that still surround us. Someday, maybe, more of Tesla’s dream will become reality.
More about Violet Fire: www.violetfireopera.com