By Chloe Taft
The thematic thread of the opera in development at MIT’s Media Lab isn’t particularly innovative—a man’s struggle with mortality—but the production design of Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant is anything but traditional.
Death begins when Simon Powers, an aging inventor (bass-baritone James Maddalena in the initial production), downloads his essence into his living room in order to achieve immortality and watch over his family. Then, in what is called a “disembodied performance,” Powers sings offstage while hooked up to a battery of sensors that translate his gestures and emotions into the moving walls and furniture of the set. At one point he inhabits a chandelier that descends and morphs its shape to embrace his still-human widow. The multitalented lighting fixture also functions as a stringed “hyperinstrument” that can be plucked by hand or played remotely via electromagnets. Providing support, seven-foot-tall OperaBots scoot around the stage doing lighting and chorus work.
Composer and creative director Tod Machover describes the 90-minute, one-act score as a hybrid of classical and popular forms with influences that include Bach and the Beatles. Poet Robert Pinsky wrote the libretto. The premiere is set for Monte Carlo in September, and performances are to follow in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago.
“Opera has become very conservative,” says Machover. “I hope to liberate it.”
Chloe Taft is a freelance writer in Chicago.