Locust is an environmental murder mystery in which solving the century-old extinction of an iconic species provides lessons for the modern world. The ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust compels a scientist to figure out how a creature that once blackened the skies of the West survives only in stories (e.g., Little House on the Prairie). The opera is based on Jeffrey Lockwood’s highly acclaimed book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic, 2004), which Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx described as, “Gripping... fascinating... an entomological thriller.”
SCENE 1 (the prairie)
During a modern-day grasshopper outbreak on western grasslands, an entomologist dozes off and is visited by the ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust who promises to haunt the scientist until he finds her killer. He is awakened by a rancher who says this outbreak is not as bad as the 1880s, when great grandfather was driven from his Nebraska homestead by the greatest locust swarm in human history.
SCENE 2 (the scientist’s home)
While pouring over old records, the entomologist develops hypotheses to explain the locust’s demise. But each time as he begins to doze, the ghost appears to tell him why his explanation fails (changes in climate, fire patterns, and bison ecology in the 1800s). No change seems to be large or fast enough to account for the extinction of such a vast species. The ghost tells him than an answer will come through story—and reminds him that even she had times and places of vulnerability.
SCENE 3 (the prairie)
The scientist listens to the rancher’s tale of his great grandfather’s exodus to the fertile river valleys of the Rockies, where farmers transformed the land. The rancher leaves for a church gathering. As the entomologist nods off, the locust’s ghost arrives. With her prompting, he finally understands the extinction. Farmers unwittingly destroyed the highly localized sanctuaries that sustained the species between outbreaks—not premeditated murder but accidental extinction. He asks the ghost if her species might still exist in a pocket of intact habitat. She replies that even if a few survived, they would no longer be the Rocky Mountain locust, for “we are what we do”—and we no longer fill the skies. And if humans discovered these remnants would the insects fare any better than the last bits of old growth forest? What have you learned?
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