BATH — Peter Alexander was watching a PBS documentary about space exploration when the voices of astronauts caught his ear. The words they spoke about their experiences in space were poetic and lyrical.

A songwriter, Alexander grabbed pen and paper and began transcribing. He and his wife, Johannah Harkness, wrote the song “Space Journey” using the astronauts’ words almost verbatim:

“When I looked outside my window, I was floating there in space

The earth was small and Lapis-blue, I felt so full of grace

There were shooting stars beneath me, and Aurora’s dancing lights

The cities in my distant world glowed through the darkness of the night.”

The song is the centerpiece of “One Way Trip to Mars,” which gets its premiere as a fully staged rock opera in August at the Waterville Opera House. Alexander, a veteran of Maine’s contemporary music scene, co-wrote it with Harkness, an artist and therapist. They staged a concert version with a 30-member cast last September at the Chocolate Church in Bath, where they live. They also performed a version in January in Brunswick.

Co-creators Peter Alexander, left, and Johannah Harkness workshop lyrics for the rock opera “One Way Trip to Mars” with director Dennis St. Pierre. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

It’s become much bigger in the months since. It is now a 21-song opera with sets and costumes starring Fantine Pritoula, a singer-songwriter who has worked with pop stars Gloria Estefan and Wyclef Jean and who emerged from New York auditions with one of the leading roles. Told entirely in song and performed by a New York-based cast and a live rock band, the show is in the tradition of the Who’s “Tommy” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.”

Alexander and Harkness began writing while watching the PBS documentary in which the astronauts spoke so eloquently, but the event that shaped the story and set them on their mission happened in 2013 when they saw another space show about a Mars project in Europe. They learned that a non-governmental agency was trying to raise money to send people on a one-way trip to Mars. Alexander and Harkness were dumbfounded to learn that 200,000 people had signed up.

“Who would do that?” Alexander said to his wife incredulously. “Who would leave behind everything?”

A psychotherapist, Harkness began answering the question by writing songs. The opera is set in 2033 and tells the story of the first person to fly a solo one-way mission to Mars. Paolo leaves everything he loves on Earth, including his astronaut wife, Cassandra. His mission is to establish a human colony, but that plan goes awry when a catastrophe on Earth severs communications with the Red Planet. Paolo is a man alone in the universe, unable to communicate and without knowledge about why his space agency has stopped communicating with him. Eventually, the agency sends Cassandra to join him.

At its heart, a story about space exploration comes down to love.

The poster for “One Way Trip to Mars” adorns a wall at Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness’s home in Bath. The opera will have its world premiere at the Waterville Opera House in August. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

SUPPORT FROM SCIENTISTS

The production got a boost, morally and otherwise, this spring when a consortium of scientists, investors and believers who are working to establish a human presence on Mars within a generation invited Alexander to their conference in Washington, D.C., to talk about the opera and its potential. Alexander emerged from that conference emboldened that the vision for “One Way Trip to Mars” should be much bigger than a one-off Maine production. Like the scientists actively working to establish a human presence on Mars by 2033, Alexander and the creative team have their sights set high: Broadway.

They have some reason for their ambitious hope. Chris Carberry, chief executive and co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc., a nonprofit that is pushing the effort to send humans to Mars, believes the opera can help his organization achieve its goals by using art to spread the message that such a mission is realistic and within reach. The organization has pledged to support Alexander and the creative team by making authentic Mars-related equipment, space suits, videos and other items available for use as sets and props. Financial support is also a possibility through the introductions Carberry is arranging with decision makers at organizations that have supported Carberry’s own work for years, Alexander said.

“It’s an interesting partnership,” Carberry said in a phone interview. “We always want to find ways to collaborate with different kinds of groups who can help share our message with different audiences. This is a unique opportunity because, as we all know, there are a lot of movies about Mars, but it never crossed my mind that someone is writing a rock opera about going to Mars.”

Carberry is interested in the arts, and he understands the impact of the arts on pop culture and public opinion. Last week, he participated in a forum in Washington about the connection between space exploration and Hollywood. He learned about “One Way Trip to Mars” by chance. He happened to be scanning audition notices in the publication Broadway World and saw Alexander’s ad for upcoming New York auditions. He sent Alexander an email, which led to a conversation about the opera and the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., in early May.

The Human to Mars Summit is the largest event dedicated to the human exploration of Mars, bringing together the major players of the space program, including NASA and many of the leading contractors that are developing the equipment and gear that could one day get people to Mars and help sustain human life there. Among the speakers at the conference was former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two humans to land on the moon and the second to walk on it.

At the summit, Alexander played music from the opera, talked it up with attendees and showed video from the prior performance. As one of the few non-scientists in the room, he received a lot of attention. “They treated me like a rock star,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

The conference was a key moment in the development of the piece, because it put Alexander in front of people who can help with funding and other forms of support, including access to Mars videos, photography, flight suits and other equipment and gear for use in the show as costumes and props.

Carberry said he and his colleagues with Explore Mars decided to back “One Way Trip to Mars” in the hope that it will go beyond Waterville after its premiere in August. “I think it has a chance,” Carberry said. “Peter made quite an impression on everybody. Obviously, we haven’t seen the full stage production, so we will see how they develop it and how it translates into a stage production. But it has a lot of energy and is very unique. A number of songs are rather catchy, so I do think it has an opportunity to move beyond (Waterville). Whether it makes it to Broadway, we’ll see.”

The 21-song opera features Fantine Pritoula, a singer-songwriter who has worked with pop stars Gloria Estefan and Wyclef Jean and who emerged from New York auditions with one of the leading roles. Photo courtesy of Fantine Pritoula

NASA HOPES FOR A 2033 LAUNCH

Part of Carberry’s optimism is based on the larger interest in Mars right now. Once the domain of science fiction books and movies, NASA’s goal for sending a manned mission to Mars is just 16 years away, in 2033. “Some people want to do it sooner, and I would as well. But it should be an interesting decade or two. A lot of things will be going on in the next few years. You will see a lot more activity,” Carberry said.

Dennis St. Pierre, a multimedia artist and educator from Maine, is directing the show. A friend recommended “One Way Trip to Mars” after seeing the concert version in Bath. “He said, ‘You need to listen to this. There is something there,'” St. Pierre said. “The next day, I literally ran into Johannah on the street. We started talking, and she said, ‘Everybody has been telling us we need to talk to you.'”

St. Pierre asked for audio-only versions of the songs, because he wanted to concentrate on the words and music, not the visuals. He heard the beginning of a compelling story. “I said right off the bat, this is thrilling,” he said. “There is great compassion, great heart, great humanity and relevance to the times. It was very cool.”

But it wasn’t a rock opera. To St. Pierre, it felt more like a concert, with two people singing songs about space and a bunch of other people singing back-up. St. Pierre reworked the songs, changed their sequence and wrote additional lyrics to develop the characters and create more context for the songs.

“There are flavors of the 1960s through the 1980s in there. It will sound very familiar to an audience, which is really important nowadays,” St. Pierre said. “It’s not a typical pop musical.”

Rock music is a specialty of Alexander, whose legal name is Peter Blachly. (He has used Alexander as a performance name for decades.) He grew up with music and has performed with rock and folk artists much of his professional life. Many years ago, he received a writing credit for the song “Hard Lesson to Learn” by Rod Stewart. Harkness also writes songs and served as artistic director for the staged concerts in Bath last September.

St. Pierre brings a specialty in theater to the project. An interdisciplinary artist and educator, he studied theater in college and is a member of both Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, and he has worked for more than 30 theater and television production companies, including on Broadway.

He will use all of his skills on this production to create a theater experience that mixes live performance with video borrowed from the production’s scientific partners. Having access to authentic footage will change the how “One Way Trip to Mars” looks and feels, St. Pierre said. “When taking off, going into space, you’re going to feel like you are in the rocket ship with him. The entire backdrop of the theater will be moving, so it will be like live theater with a movie together,” he said.

Fantine Pritoula, who plays the role of Cassandra, said she knew she was working on something special when she played songs from the production for a friend, whose first reaction was to say that he recognized them.

She laughed. Other than the creative team and audiences in Maine, no one had heard any of the songs.

“You listen to these songs and you feel like you already know them,” she said. “When I started listening to the material, I was pleasantly surprised to see I was enjoying the songs a lot. I really liked the rock vibe, which was reminiscent of people like Bob Dylan and other musicians I admire.”

She is eager to begin rehearsals for the show. She has toured with bands up and down the East Coast, but as far as she can remember, she’s never been to Maine.

With cast and crew under contract, it’s full throttle for “One Way Trip to Mars.” Right now, all sights are set on Waterville in August, but everyone involved understands that Waterville will be a giant leap from what they staged in Bath, and a small step toward something much bigger.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes