Death and the Powers: The robots' opera

Ferris Jabr, reporter


(Image: Death and the Powers/MIT)

Like many operas, Death and the Powers opens with a kind of Greek chorus. Unusually, the members of this chorus are not people - they are robots: four Operabots whose triangular heads sit atop telescoping metal rods fixed to a base reminiscent of Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner. The machines nod their heads, which flash with white light, as they explain in human voices that they are avatars who will retell the story of their creators. Each Operabot then "downloads" the memories of their human correlate - visualised by a projection of the memories behind each robot. A pulse of light then blinds the audience, and the actors appear on stage in place of the droids.

The Operabots are not absent for long. They are - along with a fleet of fellow machines and computers - both props and characters, technical wizardry and thematic devices. The high-tech production is the latest project of Tod Machover, who heads the Opera of the Future group, part of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The creative team includes former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky as librettist, director Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theater, conductor Gil Rose and Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell, whose credits include Fight Club, Minority Report and Watchmen.

The story centers on a wealthy and influential inventor named Simon Powers - a Walt Disney, Bill Gates type - who, on the edge of death, abandons his ailing body and uploads his consciousness to an enormous computer called "The System", thereby achieving immortality. Simon's daughter Miranda, his third wife Evvy, and his adopted son and assistant Nicholas struggle to understand what has happened to Simon and whether they too should leave the world of flesh and enter The System.


(Image: Death and the Powers/MIT)

Machover's new opera features some impressive and futuristic razzle dazzle. Three enormous bookcases loom at the back of the stage onto which are projected the enchanting visual manifestations of Simon's thoughts and emotions after he enters The System. Simon's voice envelops the audience through a speaker system that makes typical surround sound seem but a whisper in comparison.

The Operabots - which narrate a humorous epilogue and roll about the stage throughout the performance - are perhaps the most charming and successful technology on stage. They are semi-autonomous, guided by the same computer system that controls the bookcases as well as by hidden puppetmasters wielding vide game controllers. Their sometime jerky movements and occasional mistakes of choreography make them all the more endearing.

But some of the Media Lab's more challenging projects are only half-successes. In one scene, a giant chandelier with looping metal framework and taut Teflon strings descends from the ceiling and encloses Evvy in an erotic embrace. This is Simon's way of fulfilling his wife's carnal desires after ditching his body. Originally, the Media Lab team intended for Evvy to play the chandelier like a harp, but that is not really what happens. She throws herself against the strings, but this produces a guttural vibration that is difficult to hear and feels incommensurate with the contraption's daunting size.


(Image: Death and the Powers/MIT)

Nicholas, Simon's half-android assistant, uses a robotic arm to help command the Operabots. The Media Lab hoped he could also use this arm to augment his singing voice on stage through a vocabulary of gestures, but it seems that the gadgets and gizmos adorning his limb are ultimately ornamental rather than functional.

A bigger problem, though, is that all of the technical innovation that appears in the production is too removed from the audience. Despite a few short explanatory paragraphs in the playbill, it is just too difficult for the audience to understand and appreciate what is going on. As the main draw of the show is that it is a robot opera - a theatrical performance infused with technology like never before - the show would be significantly enhanced if the team produced a separate booklet revealing the technical wizardry behind the curtain that MIT spent years developing. Let's face it: the audience is going to be more geeks and nerds than connoisseurs of classic opera, especially at a Boston showing not too far from MIT and Harvard. This is one case in which the magicians definitely should reveal their tricks. It's what we all came for.