Love and Robots in Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera

In Tod Machover's new opera, Death and the Powers , high technology meets high anxiety
By CHRIS DAHLEN  |  March 18, 2011

HEAVY METAL Tod Machover’s robot opera is at times awkward and hard to fathom, and yet still raw, powerful, and exotic.

A third of the way through the opera Death and the Powers: the Robots' Opera, the leading man becomes a machine.

Billionaire genius Simon Powers has built a "System" that can house the human consciousness, and he intends to move into it. He gives his family — a daughter, a third wife, a surrogate son, and oh yeah, a pack of robots — a flip "See ya later!" And then he's gone, only to return in a new form: flickering as images across the set, moaning and intoning through the sound system, and dominating the thoughts of everyone he left behind.

Tod Machover's Death and the Powers, which runs this month at the Cutler Majestic Theater, is a story about the evolution of man that aims to revolutionize opera. Directed by Diane Paulus with a libretto by Robert Pinsky, the opera was composed, and its technology spearheaded, by Machover, a professor of music and media and director of the Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Machover first conceived of the piece in 1999, after a conversation with Kawther Al-Abood, the board director of L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Al-Abood was shopping for a bold new work to stage in Monaco and had sought Machover out. "She wanted to do something that would galvanize opera," Machover recalls. The two talked about grand possibilities — like pulling down the theater's removable wall and incorporating the view of the Mediterranean below.

"She said, 'You open the wall and you're on this huge cliff and the sea is out there. Maybe the sea could become part of the set, and you could look out there and the water could dance . . .' And I'm like, 'She's crazier than I am!' "

For a high-tech, high-concept opera, Machover was a logical choice. His past operatic works include VALIS, based on the Philip K. Dick novel, and his work at MIT brings technology and performers together in subtle and surprising ways. Machover's lab invented "hyperinstruments," which take the sound of a bow against strings, translate it into data, and synthesize it into new sounds. A good example is "Begin Again Again. . .," where the sound of a solo cello expands and explodes, like it's cracking open Pandora's box. Virtuosi like Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell have played hyperinstruments, but Machover's just as interested in empowering amateurs: among his former students are the founders of Harmonix, who invented Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

"I've been interested since the beginning of my career in using technology to enhance performance, to enhance artistic experience, and to do it in a way that's not just humanly interesting but kind of brings human beings to the forefront," Machover says. In Death and the Powers, he didn't set out to make a show where robots whizzed around beside the actors; instead, the robots act like humans, and the humans vanish into the technology.

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