This is one of those posts that makes it difficult for me not to just hit caps lock and begin effusing unintelligibly about how wonderful this show I saw was. But I’m going to pull myself together and try to recap my experience in a rational, sane manner for you. You’re welcome.
A week ago, I saw Todd Machover’s Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera at the Harris Theater here in Chicago. Todd Machover is Professor of Music and Media at the MIT Media Lab and he, along with most of the collaborators on this ingenious project, has a diverse background spanning many corners of the music, theater, and technology realms. As a result, the production showcased a great deal of new inventions and software devised exclusively for this opera at MIT. Watching the show got me so engrossed in the plot, though, that it made it pretty difficult to admire the tech on its own — it all became a part of the story, which was probably their plan all along. Luckily, I was able to attend a special talk earlier in the week where Todd Machover discussed the technology of the production in detail. I’ll get to this in a second.
The story takes place in the distant future and revolves around the character Simon Powers, a billionaire who is facing the somber inevitability of his eventual death. He decides that in order to keep alive not only his legacy, but his consciousness, he will upload himself into The System: a network within his palatial mansion that will enable him to speak through his walls, his chandelier — basically any object in his home. Aided by his assistant, Nicholas, and hesitantly observed by his daughter, Miranda, and his third wife, Evvy, his consciousness leaves his body and enters The System, setting off the other-worldly but somehow intensely human issues and conflicts that result.
His daughter, Miranda, misses her father and is unsure of whether or not it’s really him in The System. After some trying, Simon finally gains the power to speak through the walls, and assures everyone that he’s the same: “I have billions of bucks, and I can still sign checks!” he says. Meanwhile, Evvy, his wife, somehow feels closer to him now that he’s part of The System. In one scene, she reminisces with him about the first time they met, and the walls depict fleeting images of the night as if they’re coming straight from Simon’s memories. The chandelier — a steel frame supporting taut steel strings, making it essentially a giant harp — lowers from the ceiling, and Evvy shares an intimate moment with the chandelier. It closes down around her as she lovingly plays its strings — she sings “Touch me,” while Simon’s voice repeats “More.”
Years pass, and the world begins to feel the effects of a billionaire being gone — war and famine have ravaged the globe as a result his lack of monetary contributions — and three representatives from the United Way, the United Nations, and the Administration, respectively, come to confront Simon. They don’t believe he’s really there, either, but they reproach him for his selfishness and demand to know what he intends to do about the chaos the world has fallen into. He quotes some German poetry (“O Röschen rot!”) to which the delegation replies that they don’t understand it. Simon’s walls animate with tickertape headlines a la CNN (he owns Reuters, after all) one of which says “Group of Young Men Beat Nurse to Death after Circumcision,” and he marvels at how they can’t understand poetry when real life headlines are more bizarre than any poetry in existence. In the end, he professes that he doesn’t care about the world. He’s happy in The System, and they can figure out how to deal with the wretched world on their own.
Meanwhile, Evvy has become detached from the world as well, wearing a set of headphones to stay connected to her husband’s voice and walking around with a dead stare, humming eerily. Eventually, both Evvy and Nicholas decide to enter The System and join Simon, leaving Miranda alone. In a scene that reminded me of every zombie apocalypse movie ever, an angry horde of sullied, starving peasant-types — the Miseries, as the program calls them, a result of the world’s war and famine epidemics — break into the house and attack Miranda. Simon actually comes back into his worldly body one last time, scares off the Miseries, and tries to convince Miranda to join him in The System. He assures her that The System is wonderful: there’s no pain, none of the hardships that mortals face on earth. Miranda sings very poignantly about how pain is the way she knows she’s human. Life wouldn’t be life without a little hardship. “The body of this death is who I am, it is my mind,” she sings. “Who will I be? And what will I see when my body is gone?” The music swells, and after a series of riveting high notes, she finally decides to enter The System.
The opera deals with a huge expanse of human issues. There’s Simon’s fear of death and his desire to maintain his legacy, Miranda’s relationship with her emotionally absent father, Evvy’s stronger connection with a suddenly ever-present husband and her remaining desire for his touch, and the conflict between choosing a disembodied paradise (Heaven, anyone?) and the imperfect human experience. On its own, this would have made a fantastic opera. But the technology backing it up is enough to make the savviest techie salivate. Among the cool devices onstage and in the wings:
- The walls. These are three giant structures, each on a triangular base and actually robots themselves, able to be moved remotely according to the desired scene. Each side of the structures is lined with LED tubes covered by a rounded piece of translucent plastic. These walls react to what’s going on onstage with color, pictures, text, or animation. After Simon goes into The System, these are the primary way he interacts with the world.
- “Disembodied Performance” sensors. Once Jim Maddalena, the actor playing Simon Powers, has left the stage, he goes into the orchestra pit and is fitted with a series of sensors, including gloves, wristbands, and a band around his chest. These sensors measure not only his movement, but his muscle tension and breathing rate, sending all of this data to the walls which in turn change according to his actions. As his arms tense up, the walls may turn from blue to red. As he breathes, a glowing ball may grow bigger and smaller. As he moves more quickly, animations on the walls may become more quick and erratic. This helps the walls to create an environment that makes the idea of a man inside an electronic system more believable.
- Ambisonics and Wave Field Synthesis. This one hit closest to home for me, since I’ve played in the orchestra in a ton of musicals, and there’s nothing more jarring than a performer’s microphone either being at the wrong level or (god forbid) sounding while they’re offstage. Ambisonics employs a series of 140 loudspeakers placed at various locations throughout the opera hall, enveloping the audience in sound instead of directionally blasting them with a stack of onstage speakers. Wave Field Synthesis involves a series of tiny loudspeakers lining the edge of the stage, all connected to create one continuous waveform. Tracking devices are placed on each actor so that the engineers know where they are onstage at any given time, enabling the speakers to pinpoint the amplification to make it actually sound like it’s coming from their direction. Not only does this make for a more realistic opera in general, but it makes Simon’s voice sound even more haunting — you know where it’s coming from, but you don’t see the source.
- FUCKING ROBOTS. Yeah, you had to know I was getting to them at some point. The twist to my little synopsis is that this entire story takes place in the context of a futuristic robot Christmas pageant. Humans have actually gone extinct, and robots have been left with instructions to perform this opera every year in an effort to remember and understand them. There are 11 robots onstage at any given time, and they’re controlled by various combinations of audio instructions, music from the orchestra or the singers, and manual control (As the robot mechanical design manager said, “We actually use Xbox controllers, which the MIT students are experts at. I’m not sure how.”) As you can see in the picture, they’re designed to be slightly humanoid, but retain their true machine-ness. Their little triangular heads can nod and elevate, and the wheels on which they travel give them a jerky stop-start motion like a person would have. Todd Machover describes the robots as “the intermediary between the humans and The System…In the first scene, the robots are props…and then the robots are kind of like a Greek chorus through the rest of the show: they respond to the performers and they listen to Simon Powers. I think in many ways, they kind of represent the audience more than anything else.” The end of the opera comes back to the robot play, leaving them confused about the meaning of “death,” but with the inevitable plan to recreate the play in the year following nonetheless.
The opera is no longer playing in Chicago, and there aren’t any set dates for productions in any other cities, but Machover has said he wants to tour. Keep your eyes peeled for this production in your area, guys. I can’t recommend it enough.
If this logorrheic post wasn’t enough for you, you can read my 16-page transcription of Machover’s entire hour-long technology talk he gave on April 4th here.