Dallas — Singing robots in an opera? Now there’s a first. It doesn’t matter that the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House is relatively new, this would even be a first for any theater—not including the three spaces where Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers has been performed before its glorious Southwest Regional Premiere by The Dallas Opera.
You have to wonder if the robots had to join the American Guild of Musical Artists.
The Dallas Opera has been frequently condemned as a repository for the worn and the tired. No more. Under the innovative hand of CEO Keith Cerny, TDO now combines the flexibility of a smaller company with the resources of a major one. Last season, he walked across the street to the Dallas Theater Center to introduce himself and the result was a dynamic production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, directed by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty. That was an opera about ghosts and the disintegration of the psyche. This season, Cerny takes on a bigger project, an opera about the disintegration of the whole human race. You can’t help but wonder what he will disintegrate next season.
Tod Machover is a composer with a second life as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This explains why his opera, set in the distant future, features robots, an internet big enough to hold the whole human race, a mad scientist/inventor with a dysfunctional family and a hyperactive cyborg.
Robert Pinsky fashioned a libretto out of a short story he wrote with Randy Weiner. It is sometimes clever, sometimes philosophic and other times reminiscent of certain enhanced conversations in a graduate student’s dorm room. Some lines are clever reversals, such as this rejection of the physical; that it is “…never the matter that matters.” Others are a denouncement of our current society, having the mega-rich protagonist pronounce that “…enough is never enough… what matters is more.”
The opera is flashback of a sort. The robots are required to replay a projection of the moment, way in the past, when the first human left the “meat” behind and became digital. Four of the robots turn into the four main characters and the history plays out as the rest of the opera. The robots reconvene at the end. “That’s it,” one of them says with comical understatement. But we are still mystified by words like “death” and “meat,” which is distantly used throughout as a four-lettered word to describe physical bodies. (It makes you wonder if Pinsky is a vegetarian.)
Philosophical discussions are hung on a slender plot. Gazillionaire Simon Powers, who is on death’s door, uploads himself into “The System,” a super internet, so that he can live forever in an Elysian electronic state, free of the ”meat” of his body. His wife gladly follows, but his daughter balks.
The production is dazzling from start to finish. It is also magnificently performed by singing actors, a valiant chamber orchestra and conductor Nicole Paiement, who skillfully negotiates the complicated score with remarkable ease. The production, which was designed and is owned by the MIT Media Lab, is a mind-bending combination of huge triangles that deliver an amazing light show as they rotate and reflect the different tasks that they are doing at any given moment.
The scene in which Powers “uploads” himself is a combination of creepy and chilling. When Powers is in “The System,” he appears to the “meat” world on the light towers, looking like he is on one of the gigantic electronic billboards that fill public spaces such as Times Square.
But the set is not confined to the stage, surround sound and even a creative use of the Moody Foundation Chandelier in the center of the ceiling of the Winspear itself is put to work with lighting effects. Thus, the audience is also in “The System” as we are surrounded, engulfed, by the lights and sounds.
The LED chandelier, with 318 acrylic rods, can hang as low as 50 feet below the ceiling and it extends its full length at the apotheosis of the opera. The three primary color LEDs sends waves of color down their full length, extending the effect from the stage into the hall. When it is fully retracted, the twinkle effect, which usually looks like a clear and starlit night, gives the impression of a massive computer from a sci-fi flick.
The physical elements of the production are a tour de force of electronic wizardry, merged with cutting edge stagecraft. The program credits Alex McDowell with the overall design, but the next page of the program lists 10 additional designers of the usual (wigs and makeup) and the exotic (Robotic Control Systems and something called “Visionary Technology”). The MIT Media Lab Production Team adds another two dozen or so names while the team for the February 16 simulcast (more about that later) and the team from WFAA TV another dozen. Maybe more—I lost count.
You couldn’t ask for a better cast. They give a taut performance and inhabit their respective roles as opposed to “acting.” Also, the three Simons (husband, wife, daughter) have a matched vocal quality that is remarkable, showing great care in casting. Not only do they look like the characters, but the creamy quality and flexibility of all three voices smacks of genes at work.
Baritone Robert Orth, as Simon Powers, is one of the most versatile singing actors working today. The range the rigorous role requires is preposterous on paper but, other than a few notes be bumps out at the bottom of the bass range, Orth meets the challenge. He travels into tenor territory and right past that into places that sopranos stew over. He is even effective when he is not on the stage, but in “The System,” with his electronically altered voice and his obvious distain for the visiting world dignitaries.
These dignitaries come from the United Nations and other august groups, near the end of the opera, to beg him to stop ruining the economy and sending the planet into a disastrous tailspin. There is a dramatic musical moment when they demand that Powers answer their “why are you doing this?” question and then repeat that demand, ever more emphatically, a couple of more times when the question is met by a stony silence. This is reminiscent of a similar moment in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, and you cannot help but wonder if it was intentional. In Elijah, it is the followers of Baal imploring their god to answer their entreaties so as to prove his existence and triumph over Elijah’s God. Of course, Baal is silent.
In Death and the Powers, Simon is also silent to the entreaties of the world. Is he also a false God? Is he not really “in there?” We do not know. Just because we see him proves nothing. But if he is alive, in a manner of speaking, in cyberspace, we know what he seeks. He seeks nothing less than the destruction of the planet, so that humanity will have no other option but to free itself from “meat” and join him in “The System.”
The opera also takes a page out of zombie movies, or maybe from another popular fantasy genre—one where the diseased-ravaged post-apocalypse hordes claw after the few that remain unaffected. The chorus, dressed in what looked like gray rags, supposedly representing what is left of humanity, crawls on stage to terrorize Simon’s daughter. They surround her in a Dante-esque anfractuous pile of limbs.
As that daughter, Miranda, Joelle Harvey displays a beautiful lyric soprano, of the creamy variety as mentioned before. The floating pianissimo high notes are especially lovely. She is also effective in portraying a wide-eyed innocence that is slowly dissolved by her situation. You can see this torturous process as she confronts the weirdness of an electronic father and her horror of being sucked to “The System” with him. She likes her “meat,” thank you very much.
As her mother Evvy, Simon ‘s third and last “favorite wife,” mezzo-soprano (the creamy type, remember) Patricia Risley, gives a marvelous performance in a role that requires a real range of reactions. The libretto calls her “glamorous” (what third wife of an unfathomably rich man wouldn’t be) and she certainly fits that description.
In the beginning, she is in a panic about her husband going into “The System,” that his wild scheme wouldn’t work and he would be lost. If it did, what will it mean for her when he is turned into a collection of ones and zeros. Later, after his successful transformation, things begin to look up. She experiences a modern phenomenon—cybersex—with him, roiling around on the floor while singing, “touch me.” It is a scene surfeit with quasi-solo sex. Unlike other places where Simon actually manifests himself, here we are left to wonder if she imagines his presence or if Simon is actually reaching out from “The System” to comply with her request.
Later, she establishes constant contact with Simon and only hums contentedly thereafter (sans cigarette) until she ends her process of gradually oozing into “The System” to join with him for all eternity. She makes all of these metaphoric meanderings believable, bringing them to life, while singing flawlessly in a negligee.
The fourth character in this intimate drama is Nicholas, who is a cyborg (think Robocop’s bratty little brother.) He is the tech support person who runs “The System” and the robots and who will supposedly take over and keep it all in running order when all the humans are absorbed. What happens when he jumps into “The System” himself is never explained. But we know from the prologue that the robots do just fine.
Tenor Hal Cazalet portrays him as a hyperactive humanoid that crawls all over the large light panels (the computer) and does a backflip out of sheer exuberance. Vocally, he has a bright, yet burnished, lyric tenor voice that serves him well as he negotiates the vocal backflips the score requires of him.
This brings us to the music. Machover’s opera is a magpie’s nest of musical styles, each brought into play at the appropriate moment, sometimes in tandem. A good example of that is the aforementioned “touch me” aria. Here, you have a soaring and lyric line over a bubbling and dissonant computer-esque accompaniment.
However, all of the music is effective and fits the drama when it occurs– you can’t say anything better about any opera music. Just don’t expect any lush neo-romanticism, like you will hear in Korngold’s exquisitely beautiful opera Die Tote Stadt, which is the next production of the Dallas Opera. Also, don’t expect to leave the theater with a tune stuck in your memory for weeks afterwards. What will stick instead is the concept—and you may mull over that for months.
Musically, Machover benefits from a remarkable phenomenon. In the early 20th century, when dissonance was muscling out traditional harmony, audiences reacted with outright hostility. When given a choice between Rachmaninoff and Schoenberg’s atonal and tedious 12-tone trips, they voted against Schoenberg with their feet, taking their ticket money elsewhere. The exception to this rejection of atonality was the music written for science fiction films. Electronic music, which was in its infancy, horrified audiences who, if not expecting Beethoven, at least expected real instruments being played by somebody. But this same electronic music created a fantastic mood for futuristic films.
Thus, you can speculate that some of the audience on Wednesday evening appeared to accept Machover’s most astringent musical language without a wince. “It is sci-fi after all,” they perhaps postulated, “and this is what it sounds like.” You wonder how his music would have been received if it were a story about star-crossed young lovers meeting in Paris.
However, this is nothing but blue-sky theorizing. This was not such a piece. This is a futuristic sci-fi opera based around actions in cyberspace and thus the music perfectly fit the subject matter as well as the expectations of the audience. (It would be fascinating to hear how Machover would treat those unfortunate Parisian lovers.)
If it is a critic’s job to recommend, then consider this a wholehearted recommendation to see Death and the Powers. It is something completely original, perhaps not in film (a number of humans-in-cyberspace movies jump to mind), but surely in opera. The running time of 90 minutes, without an intermission, is designed to clock in at about the length of a movie. However, it seems to pass quickly because of admiration for the singers, fascination with the techno-wizardry, involvement in the story and appreciation with the overall execution.
Death and the Powers repeats on 7:30 p.m Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday 2/16 at 2:00 PM.
You can also see if for free in a global simulcast with the Sunday matinee. The local location for this is the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Other locations are:
- Bing Concert Hall, Stanford, California
- Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California
- National Opera Center, New York, New York
- Opera Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Royal Academy of Music, London
- San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco, CA
- University College of Opera and Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden