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.
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"I think what's exciting about this opera is the meditation on technology," says Ms. Paulus, who directs the production. "The subject matter itself is about how technology is part of our lives, and therefore there is actual technology in the show.... But it's actually a very poignant story about a family."Skip to next paragraph
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After a brief prologue, Simon enters The System – and the technological wizardry really takes off, both on stage and off.
As Simon, American baritone James Maddalena (whose credits include originating the title role in the opera "Nixon in China") leaves the stage for a soundproof booth located in the orchestra pit. There he is fitted with sensors that allow him to give what composer Professor Machover calls a "disembodied" performance.
Mr. Maddalena's singing voice, arm movements, arm muscle tension, and breathing rate (via a flexible band around his chest) are captured. This information helps control the onstage movements and lights of three walls, each weighing three tons, that display flashing light patterns, as well as a huge chandelier, all of which are now inhabited by the "essence" of Simon. The stage itself "comes alive" as a character, Machover says.
"I've always been intrigued by how to [use] all the wonderful things that technology can do to make delicate, complex, layered sound," he says in a recent interview in his airy office on the fourth floor of the exotic-looking, glass-clad Media Lab building on the MIT campus. "I think of electronics as all the sounds that don't exist in a normal orchestra." He sometimes uses these additional sounds "as glue" between more conventional musical moments, he says.
A sophisticated surround-sound system, created by Machover and his team, many of them students, can put the audience in the middle of the action. When Simon sings from inside The System or his wife goes beneath the chandelier to strum its wires and commune with her disembodied husband, the sounds extend to envelop the audience, making it feel as though it, too, is inside The System, Machover says.
Another loudspeaker system across the front of the stage allows sounds to seem as though they are coming from particular spots on stage. "We do a lot of tech tricks to make the sound very natural," Machover says.
Although in some ways the music is unconventional, he's given it a familiar element: strong, clear melodies. "One of the things I do best is write melodies," he says.
The music "has a texture that is quite powerful and has incredible lyricism, almost a kind of Benjamin Brittenesque power to it," Paulus says. It's not "atonal and alienating. It's not at all like that," she says. "It's challenging, serious music. But it has extreme moments of beauty and melody."