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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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Machover, who has played the cello since childhood, says he "hated" opera growing up, preferring rock or other classical music. But as an adult he found his tastes changing.

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"My music has always told stories," he says. His aim is to never lose his audience, whom he likes to think of as a group of people on a white-water rafting trip. "You have a guide, and you know you're not going to fall out," he says. "You're going down this [river] which is kind of crazy, but you're secure and you know where you are."

Machover sought out Mr. Pinsky, who teaches at nearby Boston University, to write the libretto, which is written in verse. Pinsky says he would nearly always write the words first, which Machover would then set to music.

"The plot came partly out of my love of science fiction when I was a kid," Pinsky says. He also found intriguing links between poetry and a story that featured robot per-formers (designed and built by Machover's students at MIT). "Robot means 'a thing that works,' " Pinsky says. "In a sense every poem is a robot.... [Poet] William Carlos Williams said a poem is a machine made out of words."

Marc Scorca, president and chief executive officer of Opera America, whose membership includes more than 100 professional opera companies in the United States, saw "Death and the Powers" when it held its world première at the Salle Garnier opera house in Monaco in September 2010.

No other opera he can think of has taken on the subject of the effects of technology on humanity as deeply, Mr. Scorca says. "I think of Philip Glass's 'The Voyage' at the Metropolitan Opera 15 years ago, but [that was] to a lesser extent."

"Death and the Powers" moves opera toward "integrating technology into live opera performance in interesting ways," Scorca says. "It continues to push the boundaries of what is being done on the opera stage."

Machover, who has written several previous operas, sees more innovation ahead. "I've probably pushed the boundaries of different kinds of opera, for better or worse, more than anyone," he says with a smile. "I've tried a lot of things. And this won't be the last."

"Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera" makes its North American debut at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston March 18, 20, 22, and 25, presented by the American Repertory Theater. It then travels to the Harris Theater in Chicago April 2–10, presented by the Chicago Opera Theater.

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