A thoroughly modern opera: Robots enter a new frontier
Tod Machover's futuristic opera, 'Death and the Powers,' features robots and puts technology in the leading role.
But a new opera comes to the intersection of technology and the performing arts from a different angle: How can we use technology to tell a story about how humans relate to their technology?
"Death and the Powers," which has its North American première March 18 in Boston, fills the stage with nine semi-autonomous "opera bots," as well as huge moving, flashing walls and a chandelier whose strings both seem to speak and respond to touches from a human performer.
But all this technology, some of the most sophisticated to be found on any theatrical stage, is in the service of telling a very human story. The opera's plot centers on an entrepreneur and computer genius, Simon Powers, who has had enough of life in a fleshly form and has decided to download his "self" into "The System," living on in a purely digital form. His third wife, daughter, and adopted son must cope with this startling turn of events. Should they join him in a digital existence?
This familial drama takes place as a play within the play. The opera is set sometime in the future when humans, for reasons left unexplained, no longer exist. But Simon's robots have been charged by him with reenacting a human drama in order to learn more about humans, to gain a grasp of concepts such as death. Temporarily, they transform themselves into human form and enact the drama of the Powers family.
"Is that the meaning of this 'Death' – data rearranged?" asks one robot in the opera's prologue.
"What is suffering? How can I perceive/ What I cannot feel?"
Asks another: "What can we learn? What can we gain,/ From inferior matter?"
Then you see – it's true!
It isn't the blood,
It isn't the bone.
It's never the matter that matters.
Particles, molecules, cells, fingers, eyes, nerves
Are only places for the system
Of meaningful vibrations.
It's all in the meaning, the movement,
The idea – that's the idea.
The opera, more than a decade in the making, was composed by Tod Machover, who heads the Opera of the Future lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge. The libretto is written by Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate. Other key contributors include Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and her husband, writer and producer Randy Weiner. Alex McDowell, the production designer, who establish the futuristic look of the production, has designed such films as "Minority Report," with its gadgetry, and the comic-book fantasy "Watchmen."