High-Tech Death Is Brave New World Of Machover Opera
By Susan Geffen
DALLAS – Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers (The Robots’ Opera), which opened at the Dallas Opera on Feb. 12, is a 21st-century technological marvel, but it never completely abandons operatic tradition.
Seen in the world-premiere production unveiled in Monte Carlo in 2010 — which was also mounted in Boston and Chicago and nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize — the Dallas revival introduces Robert Orth in the role of the dying billionaire Simon, who has no intention of slipping away quietly. The company’s Feb. 16 performance will also be offered as a global simulcast to 10 cities that will allow viewers to interact with the live event via a specialized app.
The opera was originally commissioned by a group in Monaco, which, Machover told me at the Winspear Opera House before the Dallas opening, wanted to stage “an unusual opera.” He had two big ideas. First, he wanted to use technology to enable the audience to feel closer to the performers. The “only reason to use technology,” Machover notes, “is to allow people to communicate even better than usual.” Second, he wanted to address mortality, along with the question of how much of ourselves we actually pass on. And how much of us do other people really want?
To address these questions, former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky framed his libretto as a play-within-a-play. Humans have died off, and the robot masters are running things. The humans, however, have left behind a “ritual drama” that the robots must periodically enact, even if they don’t understand the drama’s accounts of suffering and death. The robots portray the opera’s four main characters: entrepreneur Simon Powers; his “third and final wife,” Evvy; his daughter, Miranda (whose name is perhaps a sly Shakespearean allusion to The Tempest); and his assistant, Nicholas.
Simon has invented The System, a technology that will allow him to integrate his mind into the physical environment and thus continue his contact with the living after his physical death. The women, however, are concerned about their future with the living-dead Simon, whose presence is all around them – he’s even in the chandelier. (Evvy’s love duet with Simon/The Chandelier is indescribable; Evvy is really, really missing her husband’s touch.)
Machover, director of the Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab, is the inventor of hyperinstruments, electronic instruments that harness technology to enhance musical expression. Death and the Powers employs both acoustic sounds and hyperinstruments, including a keyboard that changes sonority in response to input from the player.
The music is good, deftly blending the classical with jazz, minimalism, and rock. Much of the score is highly rhythmic, often polyrhythmic, but Machover doesn’t hesitate to leaven the percussive with the lyrical. Throughout, conductor Nicole Paiement, an advocate of music by living composers, navigates the score expertly and comfortably.
The singers are terrific, and they need to be. The music is difficult (with numerous challenging pianissimo passages for the women), and the acting demands are high. Three of the four leads have been with the production since the Monaco premiere. As Simon, newcomer Orth locates both the clown and the control freak, delivering darkly humorous lines with icy glee. “I have billions of bucks,” he sings. “And I can still sign checks.”
Mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley understands Evvy, who seems to be losing it, but in a 21st century kind of way. She wanders the set in headphones, mourning, humming, and “listening to Simon,” calling to mind another Shakespearean heroine, Ophelia.
Soprano Joélle Harvey’s Miranda is the conscience of the piece. Like Gianni Schicchi’s Lauretta and Lear’s Cordelia, Miranda is an adoring and loyal daughter. But how much of her father is really left? Her questions are eternal ones: How much do we owe the dead? How much do we owe the living? And what is our duty to the wretched among us?
Tenor Hal Cazalet has a challenging character in Nicholas, who describes himself as “post-organic.” He has a sophisticated artificial arm and impressive physical strength, but it is not much use for anyone but to assist Simon. It was difficult to summon much sympathy for the character. Cazalet’s voice, however, never wavers, even when he is required to sing while climbing the set.
The end of the opera features what might be termed “The Zombie Scene.” Earth is perishing, famine is rampant, and children are starving. A mixed-age chorus, the Miseries, dressed in gray from top to bottom, staggers onto the stage, collective arms outstretched. The scene is supposed to be very sad – these are the Miseries, after all – but the group looked like the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. When the Miseries hoisted Miranda as if she were in a mosh pit, the show became unintentionally humorous. Perhaps the zombie reference is intentional; if not, the scene might benefit from restaging.
The Dallas Opera is continuing its recent trend of new commissions. The 2015-16 season will include three world premieres: Everest by Joby Talbot; Young Santa Claus by Mark Adamo; and the comic opera Great Scott, by Jake Heggie, with a libretto by Terrence McNally.
Perhaps the most encouraging development is the Dallas company’s ongoing efforts to attract a wide audience to top-notch productions. Death and the Powers is intellectually challenging, musically rewarding, and a lot of fun.
Simulcast venues for February 16, 2:00 pm EST:
- Bing Concert Hall, Stanford, California
- Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California
- National Opera Center, New York, New York
- Opera Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Perot Museum, Dallas, Texas
- Royal Academy of Music, London
- MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts*
- San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco, California
- University College of Opera and Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
*By invitation only; email firstname.lastname@example.org to be placed on a wait list to attend.
Susan Geffen is a managing editor of Clavier Companion. She is active as a music educator, adjudicator, presenter, and writer.
Date posted: February 15, 2014