Back Stage At A High-Tech Opera

Robots share the stage with singers in a new opera called "Death and the Powers." The production was composed by Tod Machover, head of the MIT Media Lab's Opera of the Future group.

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It's not every day that opera singers share a stage with robots - unless the opera company is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Death and the Powers" is the latest high-tech opera developed at MIT's Media Lab, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

Reporter Shannon Mullen got a tour of the lab and a peek behind the opera curtain.

SHANNON MULLEN: Robots are the first performers to take the stage in "Death and the Powers."

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

MULLEN: If you're picturing R2D2 or WALL-E, you're way off. The operabots are barely humanoid, with plastic tubes for bodies and heads like triangular pizza boxes. The set is robotic too, but the libretto by poet Robert Pinsky is quintessentially human. It centers on Simon Powers, an aging inventor obsessed with mortality, who builds a system he uploads himself into so he'll exist forever.

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

MULLEN: Composer Tod Machover chose the theme.

Mr. TOD MACHOVER (Composer, "Death and the Powers"; Head, Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group, MIT's Media Lab): I'm kind of middle-aged now, so my parents are getting older, my kids are - so I think a lot about aging and mortality and generations, and how you pass along all the detail and texture of somebody's life to somebody else.

MULLEN: Like any storyteller, Machover wants the audience to think about the same things his characters do.

Mr. MACHOVER: Where does a human life stop, and where might technology take over? But even more basic questions like, what is our legacy, and what form can we put the essence of each of us in to share with others?

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

MULLEN: Though Machover developed "Death and the Powers" at MIT, where he teaches in the Opera of the Future program, he does most of his composing in an 18th-century barn outside of Boston.

Mr. MACHOVER: It's got all kinds of surprises. So this is the main part where I work, and to have a place like this that feels so connected with history, you know, you can just smell the past in here. There's something about that that makes me feel wonderful every time I come in here.

MULLEN: Now, picture MIT's Media Lab, an ultra-modern building with mile-high ceilings, sparkling glass walls and wide-open workspaces. It's where dozens of 20-something students designed the opera's technology.

Ms. ELLY JESSOP (Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group, MIT's Media Lab): I've been working on the wearable sensor system and audio analysis that the main character of Simon Powers uses to go from being a physical actor into an entire set.

MULLEN: That's 24-year-old Ph.D. student Elly Jessop. She's talking about the second scene in the opera when Powers uploads himself into his system and becomes the set.

For the rest of the show, the baritone who plays the role, performs out of sight, a la "The Wizard of Oz." He's actually below stage, hooked up to the computer system Jessop helped design.

To demonstrate, she puts on special gloves, armbands and body sensors. And as she speaks and gestures, patterns of light dance on a big flat-screen TV, representing the set.

Ms. JESSOP: When I quickly move, suddenly everything explodes on the screen. Large gestures make it very active. As I breathe in, things get stiller and the color changes from blue to red.

MULLEN: On stage, three huge triangular walls made of LED tubes light up, change color and move around.

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

MULLEN: There is a traditional orchestra in this show. But Machover says it's amplified through a 3-D surround sound system that's meant to put the audience inside Powers' system.

Mr. MACHOVER: The end of the well, I won't give it away, but the kind of climactic moment of the opera, the sounds fill the space in such a way that it sounds like the walls, like, blow off the theater.

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

MULLEN: All of this technology might be a turnoff for some traditionalists, but on the other hand...

Ms. SHARON DANIELS (Director, Opera Institute and Opera Programs, Boston University): This has a potential for creating a fantastic new audience.

MULLEN: Sharon Daniels is a soprano who's performed internationally and now runs Boston University's Opera Institute.

Ms. DANIELS: This is something that just excites the daylights out of me because this is like an extreme of what we're training our singers to be prepared for - reinterpreting, reinventing, embracing the new. And I think that's all good.

MULLEN: Still, Daniels doesn't see a lot of opera companies adopting this approach. For one thing, it's even more expensive to stage than traditional opera. With so much technology, a lot could go wrong in a live performance. And it begs the question: Will people pay more attention to all the gizmos than the story? The opera's production designer, Alex McDowell, says no.

Mr. ALEX McDOWELL (Production Designer, "Death and the Powers"): I don't think an audience thinks about the mechanics of theater, and if we do our job right, an audience in any kind of theatrical context dives into an immersive relationship with the story.

MULLEN: This is McDowell's first opera. He's a veteran Hollywood production designer whose resume includes the blockbuster sci-fi films "Watchmen" and "Minority Report." He says the technology in this show might help sell tickets, but it's not a gimmick.

Mr. McDOWELL: You know, the story is that the human disappears, a kind of robotic entity has been left behind. I don't think there is any option but to use technology to tell that story.

MULLEN: "Death and the Powers" made its world premiere in Monaco last month and starts the U.S. tour this winter. But Tod Machover is already dreaming up his next show. And he says, this time, he wants to create something really different.

(Soundbite of opera, "Death and the Powers")

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen in Boston.

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