“Breathe Freely”, by Hayley Swinson

A Chemistry Opera?

On Monday I attended Breathe Freely, a short opera honouring the School of Chemistry’s Tercentenary. Yeah, it sounds strange. An opera. About chemistry. Considering that the last time I touched a chemistry book was in high school, I didn’t know what to expect. But the point of ILW is to branch out, and how much more diverse can you get than music and science?

Mad Scientist or Opera Fanatic?

I strode past a door proclaiming “Caution: Strong Electromagnetic Fields” (did I stumble into a mad scientist’s lab? I wondered), found the room and settled into a seat. Julian Wagstaff (http://www.julianwagstaff.com/), the friendly and somewhat self-deprecating composer/producer of the opera, gave a short introduction about the piece. Breathe Freely shares its title with a book by Professor James Kendall of Edinburgh University. His book delves into the truth about poison gas, explaining that the gas is not an insurmountable weapon and should not be feared.

Historical Context

Wagstaff’s opera takes place at the end of WWII, when Polish officer and former revolutionary socialist Lieutenant Stanislaw Hempel requested a laboratory in the very building in which we sat. Later, Dr. Chrissie Miller, first female chemist to be inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, joined the two men for a discussion of the difficult – and at times ironic – situation in which the war placed the three of them professionally.

Meet and Greet

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to speak to the composer – who introduced himself as Julian – over tea and (delicious) biscuits. His idea, he explained, was to bridge the gap between science and music. He had used several formulae to dictate the direction of the music and had also tailored the songs to each character, going so far as to mimic Kendall’s teaching style in the rhythm of his segments. “There is so much history involved [in the opera],” Julian explained. “Sometimes it can be difficult to decide what to keep.”


–Photos by Blogger, Hayley Swinson. Used with her permission.

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