Death and the Powers

Death and the Powers is the new opera by Tod Machover, spanning many collaborations and 11 years in the making.  Yesterday I saw it at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.

Many who may see it may be in a similar position as I, without having seen any previous operas, but enticed by the technology and music in this piece.  Beforehand, I was partly concerned that the show would be too much flash and bang and not enough depth regarding effects, but that was totally not the case.  The use of the robots in the performance is astounding, sometimes evoking more empathy than the human actors.  The technology is beautifully integrated in the opera, from the three robotic walls, to the many operabots, and also the use of projections and lighting.  I found myself thinking less about how they did it, and more about what they were showing, which is always a good sign regarding art and technology.

Scenes merge a few different mediums, for instance the very first ‘human download’ scene.  I found this scene incredible- there were projections of the memories which would beam down to the actual robots, all the while an experimental electronic soundtrack moving through a variety of genres for each character- all the while feeling whole, rather than collaged.

Sometimes during the performance, the text or melodies would cease to engage me, I attributed that to my limited experiences with the opera form, rather than this piece itself. But a few lines really jumped out to me.  When Simon is transforming to merge into the System, he repeats, ‘I am the same’, and though the line repeats over and over, it becomes so dynamic, a thread to hold onto in the process, and really highlight his subtle dynamics as a singer.  Another beautiful scene involving the concept of post organic beings, ‘…Without a body, post-organic like me.’, which Nicholas says to Simon.

During the applause at the end, the operabots entered the stage, formed a line, and did their variation of a bow.  This part got the loudest set of applause of all the performers.

After the performance, Robert Pinsky (poet) and Tod Machover described the creation of the piece and some of the behind the scenes work.  In the very beginning, Pinsky was intrigued by Machover’s idea to use huge technology as a tool to move beyond epic showcases- to create intimate experiences as well.

While writing the music, Machover would often email Pinsky about adding something more to certain lines of the poetry, and Pinsky would email back within hours.

At one point they considered having Simon float above the audience as a hologram, but figuring out the technology to produce the effect was a barrier.  Machover described that usually a designer is brought close to the end of the development of a piece. In this case designers were brought early on in order to think about how to construct different elements of the performance, like realizing a robotic wall is essential for Simon, which would in turn feed into the development and story.

The visualizations, projections, and some of the robotic movement in the play felt ‘organic’ in the sense that they included tiny details and movements that felt both a bit random and tied to the rest of the environment.  It turns out that there was a lot of thought put into this, resulting in a lot of behind the scenes tech.  Objects on stage can sense each other and respond.  Simon during the performance, even while offstage, was outfitted with sensors to measure his breathing, heart rate, and muscle tension, which would then feed into environmental responses such as the lighting and dynamics of the three walls.

I am very excited about these techniques- like the ‘live’ environment and robot actors, all connected and talking to each other.  I’m looking forward to see them integrated into other genres of performance as well.