High-Tech Death Is Brave New World Of Machover Opera

Hal Cazalet (left, as Nicholas) and Joélle Harvey (as Miranda) in the Dallas Opera production of Todd Machover's 'Death and the Powers.' (Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)
Post-organic Nicholas (Hal Cazalet) and Simon’s loyal daughter Miranda (Joélle Harvey) ponder a strange immortality.
Tod Machover’s ‘Death and the Powers’ is revived at the Dallas Opera. (Production photos by Karen Almond)
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.

American composer Todd Machover mixes acoustic and hyperinstruments.
Composer Tod Machover mixes acoustic and hyperinstruments.

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.

Patricia Risley (Evvy), Robert Orth (Simon), and Joélle Harvey (Miranda).
Patricia Risley (Evvy), Robert Orth (Simon), Joélle Harvey (Miranda).

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.

Machover's opera at the  Winspear Opera House. (Luke McKenzie)
Machover’s opera at the Winspear Opera House. (Luke McKenzie)

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?

Nicholas (Hal Cazalet) works with a robot.
Nicholas (Hal Cazalet) revels in the computers in his robot world.

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:

*By invitation only; email powers@media.mit.edu 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.



  1. Saw it last night. No story! I couldn’t have cared less about these people or what happens to them. With the considerable acting chops of the cast, I consider that a real waste.

    The music was really good. The singers were exceptional. The technical and staging were all good. Very good…except the “Walking Dead” scene where I almost laughed out loud…no kidding. None of it counts if there is no story to tell. Or maybe it’s just a bad story.

    Problem: was I the only one that thought the composer and librettist had never ever read a science fiction novel!?!? The acience is NEVER the story and it never substitutes for lack of story. The science is the canvas on which you paint the picture. It’s the mise-en-scene. Plot: a guy uploads his consciousness into a supercomputer (by the way…where were all the wires and electrodes for transferring Simon to the system?) and his family have trouble dealing with it…eventually join him in the cloud. That’s a five minute story. I can think of so many existing science-fi stories that are dramatic knockouts and would have actually been interesting.

    . The closest we got to dramatic tension was when the three suits showed up. They nailed it.

    I think with some rewrites this could be pretty interesting. Some dramatic tension would help a lot. Still…GO SEE IT. We want to encourage more of this. Next time instead of getting a poet to write about robots, read some Roger Zelazny who really has something to say about consciousness and being and deification

Comments are closed.