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The Man Behind Robot Opera Death and the Powers

When composer Tod Machover’s preteen daughters dragged him to a Britney Spears concert, he found his mind drifting from the music to the giant video screens in the arena. The screens were supposed to allow everyone a good view of Spears, to incorporate the squealing audience into the giant-size spectacle of the rock concert. But they had the opposite effect. Spears was just a little dot up on stage, dwarfed by her projected supersize image. Rather than feel closer to the teen idol, Machover felt as if the technology created a gulf between audience and performer.

That troubled Machover, a composer and inventor who has spent his career developing ways to use technology to create access to music experience and musical expression. Machover saw it as a challenge. How do you turn technology on its head, to use it in a performance in a way that, rather than mediating or distancing people, brings the audience closer to the performer? The result is his opera Death and the Powers, which The Dallas Opera opens at the Winspear Opera House on February 12.

To tell its sci-fi story about a man, Simon Powers, who seeks eternal life by uploading his consciousness into a giant computer, Machover’s opera incorporates the kind of technology you might expect at a rock concert. There are robots, hyperinstruments, automated set pieces, a specially designed sound system composed of hundreds of tiny speakers, and elements that are controlled by the sounds of instruments in the orchestra pit. The Dallas Opera production of the so-called “robot opera” will also debut a high-tech simulcast, where viewers at locations in 10 cities around the globe will not only watch the opera remotely, but will also be able to manipulate the lights and movement of the Winspear’s chandelier during the performance with their iPhones and iPads.

In the tradition of grand opera, Death and the Powers is going to be one hell of a spectacle. But the robots and other bells and whistles are not just an attempt to give a traditional art form a futuristic twist. The opera’s story offers its own technological parable, as well as a staging challenge. After the first act, the baritone playing Simon Powers leaves the stage, and for the rest of the performance, he sings from the orchestra pit. The character of Powers remains present, though, through the dynamic stage pieces—robotic instruments—Machover invented for the show. For example, a massive, automated “chandelier,” retrofit with piano strings bowed by mechanical wheels, amplifies and manipulates the opera singer’s voice. The sound of this instrument can be altered by other characters on stage, as is the case when Powers sings a duet with his wife, who touches and interacts with the giant instrument, changing Powers’ voice as they sing. “We are basing an opera around a hyperinstrument where the performer is not there,” Machover says.

This blending of music and technology is typical of Machover, a musician and inventor who heads the Opera of the Future group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Machover is the brains behind musical inventions like the Hypercello, an electronic cello that learns and adopts to the style of the performer who plays it, and Hyperscore, which allows children to compose music for an orchestra by drawing lines on a computer screen. Machover and his team are perhaps best known for creating the technology that powers Guitar Hero, the popular video game that lets players pretend to play rock songs by tapping a few buttons on a plastic, guitar-shaped controller.

Death and the Powers is a larger, more complicated undertaking than these inventions. It took the better part of a decade to develop the technology, but it’s still thinking through the implications of technology on the way we communicate and express ourselves.

“Every instrument I have ever made—from a cello for Yo-Yo Ma to rhythm instruments for kids or an interface for someone who has cerebral palsy—the common thing between all of them is the physical relationship between a person and your idea and the feeling that gets channeled through your body into an instrument,” he says.

This relationship cuts to the thematic heart of Death and the Powers. The opera’s dramatic climax comes when Simon Powers tries to convince his daughter, Miranda, to join him in his disembodied version of eternal life. Miranda (who, not coincidentally, shares her name with the daughter of the magician Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is torn. Should she give up her body for a new kind of eternal existence or hold on to her full, physical humanity, which means accepting death? The ability of the opera to create a character who exists onstage in disembodied form intensifies this tension between physical and digital existence.

“The technology is not just there to be cool and pretty,” Machover says. “It is deeply connected to the music. Everything becomes more than the sum of its parts.”

This article originally appeared in the February issue of D Magazine.

One comment on “The Man Behind Robot Opera Death and the Powers

  1. Actually, the technology for this opera is WAY ahead of what you’d find at a rock concert. Great article!