A Night at the High-Tech Opera
Leave it to Alex McDowell to invigorate an opera with visual ingenuity, cutting edge technology and the best possible immersive experience. That's what occurred last month with the premiere of Death and the Powers in Monte Carlo.
The stripped-down, one-act opera by composer Tod Machover and developed at the MIT Media Lab with the American Repertory Theater, tells the story of Simon Powers (James Maddalena), brilliant businessman/inventor, who transcends the boundaries of humanity by passing from one form of existence to another to project himself into the future.
Thus, Death and the Powers, directed by Diane Paulus (the acclaimed revival of Hair in Central Park) with a libretto by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (The Inferno of Dante), offers pioneering performance technologies developed by Machover and his Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab. The stage represents Simon's house, but this environment gradually reveals itself to be the vast, interconnected, intelligent System of Powers' continuing presence. As the opera progresses, the set personifies Simon's thoughts, feelings, memories and desires. A new technique called Disembodied Performance uses innovative sensors and analysis software to translate Maddalena's conscious and unconscious sounds and gestures into the behavior of the set. In this way, The System reflects Simon Powers' transformed presence even after his physical body is no longer visible to the audience.
In addition to the animatronic set, the opera employs several other inventions developed especially for the production, such as a chorus of "Operabots," which narrate and react to the story, and a musical Chandelier, comprised of long strings that resonate via both remotely actuated electromagnets and by an on-stage performer plucking and dampening the strings.
"I've never done live performance before. It was an interesting design problem because it was tied up with a science and engineering base. There's a very poetic storyline. But how do you bring a set to life? A lot of it was with the rich programming and engineering resources at MIT with a robot lab and musical engineering."