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Once a physicist: John Fulljames

John Fulljames is the associate director of opera at the Royal Opera House in London.

Once a physicist: John Fulljames

Why did you decide to study physics?
I went to a school where if you could do science, you did. There was also something about knowing I had the right answer that I found reassuring. In those teenage years, it is much harder to write essays because you are unsure how good they are, but if you have solved an equation, you know the answer is right.

Did you enjoy studying it at Cambridge?
I loved it! There were some amazing lecturers – Malcolm Longair's course on astronomy, space and relativity is locked in my memory – and the level of teaching was extraordinarily high. By my final year, though, I had discovered lots of other things – including music and theatre – and I did not go to very many lectures, I confess. I tried for a while to connect my interests in physics and music: my third-year project was all about acoustics, and at one point I thought I would become an acoustician. I don't know why I didn't pursue that, actually. I think it would have been quite fun.

How did you get into opera?
I was involved for a long time in music and in theatre, and I realized that opera unites these two things. After I graduated, I set up a company called The Opera Group, which commissions new opera. I felt there was not a company that really had new work as its core value, so I got together with three colleagues from Cambridge to start one.

What skills do you need in your job?
Being able to analyse things is really important. It might be a music score, or it might be a way of introducing some new process in an organization, but in either case you need to break something down into steps until you see its structure. Often, when I approach a piece of music, I find myself breaking big blocks down into smaller blocks, and I think that way of analysing music comes very much from a sense of rigorous, logical thinking that tracks back to studying physics. The other thing I carry from studying physics to working with theatre is a desire to follow my nose into the things I want to learn about. There is a sense that when you study physics, you are entering a new world, and in some ways that is also what happens every time I make a new show.

What have been some highlights of your career so far?
The thing I have enjoyed doing most recently is a piece by Schoenberg, Von Heute auf Morgen (From Today to Tomorrow), which was written in the 1920s. Mathematically, it is fascinating, because Schoenberg was writing 12-tone music, and he built a series where you have to use each note in the series once before you can start going through the series again. What is fascinating about that music for me is that he strives (not always successfully, I think) to create an emotional narrative out of that technique. I enjoyed working on that piece very much because it captures the sense that opera is a marriage of intellect and emotion. Another highlight was a piece about dementia that The Opera Group did in 2010. It was called The Lion's Face, and we developed it with support from the Wellcome Trust and help from a clinical scientist at King's College London, Simon Lovestone. For me, that was a fascinating project, because it joined up different aspects of where I am coming from.

What do you hope to accomplish at the Royal Opera House?
I think there is a huge opportunity for opera to be an art form that stretches out beyond buildings. In the past, we have associated it with opera houses, but now we can experience opera in the theatre, in cinemas, on a large scale or a small scale – even on smartphones. By making high-quality work on all those different platforms, we can engage new audiences and also new stories and ideas. My vision for opera is that it should be a vibrant and contemporary art form, not a heritage art form.

Any advice for today's students?
I think you have to follow your curiosity. I feel very lucky because I got to pursue something I was passionate about – physics – while not having to pursue it vocationally. I look now at what students have to pay to go to university and it terrifies me. The idea that you would study something because it benefits the way you grow as a human being, rather than directly benefiting your career seems anathema to the way the government wants us to think about university. So I would urge anybody who is thinking about studying physics to follow their curiosity – it will feed your humanity!

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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