Machover’s “robot opera” to open Chicago Opera Theater season

March 29, 2011
By Wynne Delacoma

Tod Machover's "Death and the Powers" opens Chicago Opera Theater's season Saturday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Jill Steinberg.

Remember “CNN opera”?

In the 1980s and 1990s, when John Adams was producing works like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, that became the go-to label for new operas based on stories drawn from the day’s headlines.

“CNN opera’’ isn’t used much any more, now that many stage directors update productions, turning even centuries-old operas–from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Handel’s Hercules to Mozart’s Don Giovanni–into compelling, contemporary stories.

But on Saturday night Chicago Opera Theater kicks off a season that draws from both today’s headlines and the ages-old questions of immortality and love that have always fascinated opera composers and audiences.

Cyberspace is the realm of the season opener, Death and the Powers (The Robots’ Opera) by the American composer Tod Machover. With a libretto by Robert Pinsky, the former U. S. poet laureate, it concerns a dead man who manages to “perpetuate his existence beyond the decay of his physical being.” Simon Powers, a rich inventor, embeds himself into the objects surrounding his family, leaving his loving wife and daughter struggling to move on with their lives. The opera had its world premiere last fall at Monte Carlo Opera and arrives in Chicago directly from performances at Boston’s American Repertory Theater.

The production surrounds the cast of seven singers with screens lit with bright columns of shifting colors and a tensile, web-like musical chandelier that becomes an almost-human figure. There are luminous, triangle-headed robots, 143 speakers scattered about the theater and dozens of computers to control the lavish sound and light show.

Diane Paulus, director of seven previous COT productions including three Mozart operas, is the stage director. Sets are by Alex McDowell, who has worked with film directors Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. Baritone James Maddalena heads the cast, and conductor Gil Rose leads the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The season continues April 23-May 1 with a turn to ancient myth: Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1693 opera, Médeé. It is the second installment in COT’s three-season cycle of Baroque operas about the mythical Greek queen who killed her children to punish her unfaithful husband, Jason.

The season ends May 7-8 with a double bill titled “He/She.” It includes two staged song cycles about obsessive love: Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) and Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson sings the Schubert cycle, and tenor Joseph Kaiser sings the Janacek.

“I was thinking the way I normally think: outside the box, I guess you might say,” said Brian Dickie, COT’s general director, about the wide-ranging 2011 season. “I tend to try to look at the time period over two or three years, to see what gaps there are which can usefully be filled by COT. Earlier music and new things are the sort of obvious gaps, which doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally go into the 19th century. But by and large, Lyric Opera covers the 19th century pretty comprehensively.”

COT has been involved in Machover’s opera about cyberspace-enabled life after death for several years, said Dickie.

“I first encountered Tod many years ago in Paris when he was working at IRCAM with Pierre Boulez,’’ he said. (Machover, then in his 20s, was director of musical research at Boulez’s experimental new music center between 1978 and 1985.) “Then, six or seven years ago when Diane Paulus was doing several productions for us, she said she was working with Tod Machover on this opera. So we got involved as sort of creative partners.”

Born in New York, Machover studied at The Juilliard School with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. His father was a pioneer in computer graphics, and Machover was fascinated by the possibilities of blending electronics and music. After leaving IRCAM, he returned to the U. S. to become professor of music and media at the newly established MIT Media Lab where he is still based.

Machover is also director of the lab’s Hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future Groups. Artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell have performed on Hyperinstruments, whose computer-activated elements respond to the player’s most subtle gestures. Millions of children and amateurs have used projects based on similar technology such as Machover’s Toy Symphony and the popular Guitar Hero video game to compose music.

Machover started thinking about Death and the Powers in 1999 when the Monte Carlo Opera asked him to write something “unusual” for the company. He wanted to include computer-generated elements, and since Monte Carlo’s elegant opera house overlooks the Mediterranean, he envisioned a watery atmosphere with objects floating around the stage.

The father of two teen-aged daughters, Machover spent a fair amount of time at rock concerts while mulling over ideas for the opera. All those hours watching U2 and other rock groups performing in large arenas raised red flags about his ideas for Monte Carlo. Large screens and projected images, he discovered, dwarf the live performers on stage.

Tod Machover

“In most cases, even with the best performers,” said Machover, “you go to their shows and they literally look like ants running around on stage. It reduces the human presence.” He began to think that Hyperinstruments and other interactive devices that respond to human movements might help bridge the gap.

“They could enhance the humanity of the performers onstage and their connection to the audience,” he said.

For a libretto, Machover focused on mortality and our longing to leave an enduring legacy. His previous operas, VALIS from 1987, Resurrection from 1999, and Skellig from 2008, were based on novels. But poetry seemed a better fit for such a mythic subject, so he asked Pinsky to craft the libretto for Death and the Powers. Dramaturge Randy Weiner helped shape the story.

The opera may have been a decade in the works, but the topic could not be more timely. With Facebook, Twitter and a myriad of social media at the tip of our thumbs, we are obsessed with making our presence known in cyberspace. In January a New York Times magazine article explored the question of what happens to the blogs, tweets and other digital artifacts that make up our digital personas once we die. Using technology to reach beyond the grave is a juicy topic for an opera that blends traditional elements like melody and acoustic instruments with 21st-century technology.

“The great thing about opera is that it always has been a hybrid form,’’ said Machover. “It is a very high art; it has huge ambitions. There’s a side of opera that tends toward conservatism and tradition.

“But there’s also a side of opera that is actually much more forward-looking and dynamic. It’s telling stories. It’s always been a form that looked for anything in the culture that it could swallow up, whether it was subject matter or stage techniques. Baroque opera was the most inventive form of the time for staging and machinery onstage. There’s a side of opera that’s very interested in connecting with the public.”

“It’s immensely intriguing,” said Dickie of the 90-minute opera, which will be performed without intermission. “Some extraordinary things happen visually; extraordinary sounds happen. It’s unlike anything anyone will have ever seen or heard before.’‘

Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers opens Chicago Opera Theater’s season 7:30 p.m. Saturday and is repeated April 6, 8 and 10. 312-704-8414;

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