A painstakingly tuned surround-sound system — consisting of speakers lining the edge of the stage or deployed around the theater — gives Powers a presence even while the performer is stashed in what he describes as "a real sweatbox" in the orchestra pit, hidden from view. The images and the sound design are the heart of what Machover calls the effect "disembodied performance," and they give James Maddalena, who plays the lead, a presence on the stage after he's left it. Sensors strapped to his arms and around his chest measure gestures both voluntary and unconscious — his breathing, gestures, and voice are captured as data and fed live to the sound, lighting, and robotics.
When Powers disappears into the System, each member of his family has to choose whether to follow him. His surrogate son and technologist Nicholas (Hal Cazalet) follows without hesitation; daughter Miranda (Joélle Harvey) is conflicted, and the most attached to her mortality.
The rift between Powers and Miranda drives the conclusion, and captures the tension between cyber- and meatspace. But the two come together most beguilingly in a scene between Powers and Evvy (Patricia Risley) — his third wife, who's still in love with him even after he disappears into the walls. She begs the immaterial Powers, "Touch me," and he responds with the chandelier.
The contraption descends from the ceiling over Evvy, who sheds her gown to reveal a negligee. She begins a sensual dance on the floor beneath the metal circle and its hundreds of strings, then reaches up and begins to stroke the strings — creating sound, feeling its touch, finally making love to her husband and yet hanging onto what's just a circle of metal and a contraption of wire that has been lowered down to her by a machine. It's erotic and awkward and hard to fathom, and yet it's raw and powerful and erotic.
'THE RIPPLE, NOT THE WATER'
"I think seeing real people on stage and real robots, and the line between what a human being can do and what a robot can — there's something very powerful about it," Machover had told me in an interview before the premiere — which earned positive reviews, and better yet, ran almost without a hitch. "And it's not a movie, it's not a laboratory. . . . The movie probably allows you to imagine a reality, but I think seeing it on stage — when, I don't know how to put this into words, but live shows are so much more fragile than movies."
The technology that drives Death and the Powers will live on past this run. Corporate sponsors including Avid are taking a look at the systems that drive the show, like Peter Torpey's visual display software. Disembodied performance could help us communicate and make our presences felt over long distances.
But this isn't an opera about technology: it's an opera about the line between humans and technology, and the mysteries we run into when we cross it. To take a line from the libretto, Powers recalls a time when his daughter pressed her fingers to her throat to hear the vibration of her own voice: "It's the vibration that matters . . . the ripple, not the water."
As Paulus says, "I think actually what's powerful about the piece is that there's great mystery to technology. That's what I've learned working with the people from MIT, and the greatest, farthest reaches of scientific invention, it's actually quite mysterious."
Chris Dahlen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.