Machover brought in collaborators like Pinsky, Paulus, and Paulus's husband, Randy Weiner, to shape the story and worked with grads and undergrads at MIT to develop the technology that would drive the work. (Just one piece of the set, the chandelier, has spawned three master's theses.) Machover started composing the music in earnest in 2008. He workshopped the complete score in Boston, at the ART, a year later. It opened in September 2010, in Monaco.
I attended one of the tech rehearsals last August at the Cutler Majestic, a month before the show's Monaco premiere. The theater is ornate and gilded, contrasting starkly with the stage, where the minimal white set of Death and the Powers loomed.
About 40 computers are involved in running the show, and the day I was there, the crew was having network problems. "We're still in the process of getting the systems to talk to each other," said Peter Torpey, who designed the software that displays the images on the walls. Machover describes the show as cutting edge, "because the designs are completely new and we're testing them in the show." The systems are designed to follow cues from a live performance. "This stuff is live, and not pre-canned. If the conductor slows down, the [robots] slow down too." As Paulus notes, the system gives "that palpable feeling of something that's got its own heartbeat, that can react and change. . . . [It] was critical to the piece feeling like it had spontaneous life."
The robots double as the set. Three towering bookcases, each weighing 3000 pounds and standing more than twice the height of an adult, dominate the stage and slide and turn by remote control. Skidding around them like a high-tech Greek chorus are the "Operabots." Able to shrink down to a housepet posture or stretch over seven feet tall, they wheel around with solid white bases and white Apple-esque triangular heads that sit on the metal rod-bodies and can nod up and down 90 degrees. They zip in and out of the scene, except when they can't: the crew was still working out some bugs two days before dress rehearsal, and once in a while an Operabot would die on the stage. (During a performance, the crew can use a tether to yank dead bots offstage.)
Then there's the chandelier. It's large, maybe 12 or 15 feet wide, and it spends most of the show hanging high over the stage. It's a big piece of metal with elegant curves, natural but not at all human, like a chambered nautilus or something else that's far from land. While thin metal rods make up the body, look close and you can see the teflon strings that stretch across its frames and that make it a musical instrument.
At rehearsal, Machover gave it a test. He plucked and caressed the strings with his hands, coaxing sheets of high sound and deep, metallic groans like a truck throwing up, while doctoral student Elena Jessop, who's in charge of Interaction Design, sat nearby with a laptop, checking the sensitivity and calibrating the response.
During the show, one of the singers makes love to the thing. We'll talk about that later.