Later this month, the Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab will premiere Death and the Powers, an opera more than 10 years in the making. Featuring life-sized singing robots and a musical chandelier, the opera could redefine how technology can enhance live performance and help reestablish opera’s spirit of innovation.Created by composer and MIT Media Lab Professor Tod Machover, who has designed customized instruments for musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Prince, the one-act opera will premiere Sept. 24-26 in Monaco the city-state’s ruler, Prince Albert II, is the honorary patron of the project and will attend the gala opening. More than 60 students and collaborators are traveling with Machover to help stage the complex production.
With Death and the Powers, Machover seeks to expand the traditional definition of opera through the use of technology — but in a way that enhances the human presence on stage and therefore strengthens the bond between audience and performers. “In theater, technology has consistently pulled music in the wrong direction,” says Machover. Recalling a Taylor Swift concert he recently attended with his teenage daughters, Machover bristles at the way in which “gigantic mega-screens and boom-box-like audio systems” have come to overshadow human performers, creating an experience that “forces rather than entices.”
For this project, Machover and his team attempted to use technology to bring the stage to life, almost as another character: Death and the Powers features an animated set and nine singing “OperaBots” that serve as the chorus and frame the narrative.
Creating “The System”
The opera tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful inventor who wants to ensure his legacy. To do so, he constructs “The System,” which makes it possible to download his memories and personality into the physical environment. As soon as Powers enters the system and disappears from the stage at the end of the first scene, the stage takes on his persona. His character expresses himself through giant bookcases with thousands of lights that move to the rhythm of the music, as well as a sinuous, light-emitting musical chandelier with resonant Teflon strings that can channel Simon’s presence while being strummed by his wife, Evvy.
By capturing the essence of a performer whom the audience can’t see, Death and the Powers creates what Machover calls a “disembodied performance.