Last night we saw Death and The Powers: A Robots’ Opera, a new opera composed by Tod Machover and developed by the MIT Media Lab, along with the vision of The American Repertoire Theater and Chicago Opera Theater.
The main character, Simon Powers, is dying and wants to live forever. He wants to go beyond the limits of humanity. He “downloads” himself into the “System,” his last invention. Is he still really alive? Has he destroyed death? What does it mean to be human? What is the value of this “escape?” What is death? What is his or anyone’s legacy? The opera unfolds as his family grapples with whether or not they should follow him into the “System” or remain “meat.”
These are certainly not new questions, but they have been provocatively placed in the context of high tech and a distant future. The play starts out with robots telling the audience that they are trying to understand what death is and they literally project the narrative and, by inference, the play that follows. The assumption is that all humans have disappeared. We never find out exactly what has happened to them.
The libretto, which was written by Robert Pinksy, poet laureate 1997-2000, was broadcast at the top of the stage during the performance. His poetic words combined with the words of Yeats, May Swenson, and Mundlich shape a compelling narrative. When asked why he was intrigued in writing about robots, Pinsky replied,
The word robot, I am told, comes from a Czech word meaning “one who works.” The things we make—if they are all we hope them to be—imitate something of ourselves. A poem, says the great American poet William Carlos Williams, is “a machine made out of words”: that is, a poem is a robot that performs the work of meaning and emotion.
The three large pieces of the “System” on stage— huge, mobile, light and digitalized boxes— literally become Simon Powers in his “downloaded” form. There is a musical chandelier and, of course, the robots. All these technological innovations make for a unique and intriguing theatrical experience.
The music is the powerful thread which ties all the layers of this production together into a three-dimensional (four-dimensional?) whole. The actors/singers are powerful, evocative, and hold their own against the mega technology on stage. The Los Angeles Times has called Tod Machover “America’s most wired composer.” His blending of traditional and edgy sounds, acoustic and electronic, symphonic and computerized, richly filled the theater and one’s senses.
In fact, the experience of this opera last night was a sensory explosion: intellectual, aural, visual, and meaningful.