‘A Torrent Of Light,’ Tale Of Rising AI Peril, Wins Critics’ New Opera Prize

A scene from Tapestry Opera’s world-premiere production of Nicole Lizée and Nicolas Billon’s ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ (Production photos by Dahlia Katz)

BREAKING NEWS — A world in which the rapid advancement of man-made robots threatens control over humanity is the timely subject of R.U.R. A Torrent of Light, winner of the Music Critics Association of North America’s 2023 Award for Best New Opera. With music by Nicole Lizée and libretto by Nicolas Billon, the chamber opera is a parable for today’s worries over the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence, employing an eclectic musical vocabulary referencing styles from the past century to animate a century-old story.

R.U.R. premiered May 28, 2022, in a dazzling site-specific production by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. Directed by Tapestry general director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, in close collaboration with Ontario College of Art and Design’s Social Body Lab and with musical direction by Gregory Oh, it is MCANA’S sixth Best New Opera award and the first bestowed on a Canadian work.

The opera was selected by the MCANA Awards Committee co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of The Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America. The committee is rounded out by Arthur Kaptainis, contributor to Ludwig van Toronto and former music critic of the Montreal GazetteJohn Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of The New York Times and a regular correspondent for Opera (UK) and Musical America; and Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker

Composer Nicole Lizée (Photo by Richmond Lam)

The MCANA Awards Committee stated:

“Set in the near future, R.U.R. A Torrent of Light concerns an international technology company whose founders differ on how to respond to the growing independence of the androids that serve them. The timeliness of this theme in a world challenged by advances in artificial intelligence is obvious. 

“R.U.R. A Torrent of Light is accomplished on many levels, but we were impressed particularly by the freshness and vitality of Nicole Lizée’s score. While rooted in the minimalist tradition, the music is inventive, expressive, and expertly written for the voice. Nicolas Billon’s libretto cleverly employs repetition to represent the efforts of machines to express themselves. A figure of particular interest is the android Alex. It is unusual for a non-human character to invite deep sympathy. The dilemma of Alex scans as authentically operatic.”

Lizée and Billon will receive the award for R.U.R. on June 22 in Chicago during MCANA’s annual meeting, which includes performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Haymarket Opera.

Several of the operas that received the MCANA award have been produced worldwide. The 2017 inaugural award went to composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek for Breaking the Waves; the 2018 Award to composer-librettist David Hertzberg for The Wake World; the 2019 Award to composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins for p r i s m; the 2020 Award to composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson for Blue; and the 2021 Award to composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun and librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney for Sweet Land. Due to the pandemic, no award was given in 2022.

It’s hardly surprising that Tapestry Opera should be the forum for the birth of R.U.R. in all its multimedia glory. The company, which only produces original Canadian operas, has presented the world premieres of 18 full-length works and 160 opera shorts. R.U.R. was hatched in Tapestry’s LibLab composer-librettist workshop, one of the company’s several artistic development programs. In the hands of general director Mori, Tapestry has consistently produced forward-looking work animated by multiple disciplines. “Opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies,” said Mori. “Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music, and design.”

Librettist Nicolas Billon (Photo by David Leyes)

The Canadian creative team met in 2015 at a Tapestry Opera program for composers and librettists. Lizée is a prolific and much-decorated Montreal-based composer who is fascinated with the imperfections of older technologies and with the possibilities of the new. Her reputation as a “brilliant musical scientist” reflects her inventiveness, especially in developing new sonorities. Librettist Billon is an award-winning writer for theater, film, and television. At the LibLab program, Lizée was assigned a scene from Billon’s adaptation of R.U.R. and was immediately inspired by his work.

When they met a week later to workshop the scene, a collaborative team was born. In 2017, Lizée invited Billon to join her for a week in Saratoga, Cal., where she was a creative fellow at the Montalvo Arts Center. According to Lizée, “we spent the entire week in Silicon Valley brainstorming: drinking dangerous amounts of coffee and wine, spending hours talking about music, films, books and contemplating myriad directions for the work. It was such a creative and productive time.”

R.U.R. is a timely exploration of the rapidly emerging problems of of AI-generated algorithms replacing human judgment in diverse fields — medicine, design, journalism, administration. But fears about a man-made invention that can overcome human intelligence date back at least to the early 19th century: The phrase “a torrent of light” comes from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. R.U.R. identifies a turning point in the power balance between humans and androids.

The theme was the subject of Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s seminal science-fiction play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which imagined an uprising of man-made worker androids against their human creators. Premiered in Hradec Králové in 1921, the play introduced the word robot, derived from the Czech word for laborer or serf, into modern vocabulary. During the 1920s, Čapek’s play was widely produced, including a 184-performance run on Broadway during the 1922-23 season and a short-lived revival in 1942; its themes resonated in a world facing an uncertain future after a devastating war and a global pandemic. The play was translated, adapted, and revived well into this century, and references to R.U.R. and Rossum can be found throughout popular culture.

The opera is set in 2042, when genius inventor Helena and tech-business mogul Dom confront a crisis: Their companion robot Alex refuses to bring Helena a cup of coffee.

Experienced in adapting classical texts for modern audiences, Billon trimmed a talky period piece into a streamlined, compelling scenario, eliminating the distraction of Čacek’s painfully outmoded gender dynamics. His evocation of a dystopian future where robots can exercise free will to unknown ends updates Čapek’s century-old gender conventions and simplifies the plot, which originally called for a definitive revolt of the robots. Instead, Billon focused on the emerging power struggles between humans and their increasingly independent creations, and brought out the growing ideological and personal rift between the human power couple. The updated scenario hones the drama to work believably on both a human and a technological level.

The opera is set in 2042, when genius inventor Helena and tech-business mogul Dom, a couple who 14 years earlier founded a now-thriving Apple-like tech company, confront a crisis: Their companion robot Alex refuses to bring Helena a cup of coffee. Alex has worked out how to tweak his own software settings to override his masters’ commands. Helena is delighted at his exercise of free will, while her husband is horrified at the philosophical and commercial implications. Husband and wife are thrust into conflict, separately manipulating the robot’s programming to advance their respective values and goals for the technology.

Tapestry general director Michael Hidetoshi Mori

Lizée distinguished the singing styles of humans and robots while largely avoiding extended vocal techniques. Helena and Dom — mezzo-soprano and baritone — sing with traditional lyric technique, while the robot version of Helena uses a high-pitched, stuttery, singsong style. The robot chorus of four women provides background vocals that can sound like anything from a harmonizing girl group to a synthesizer. Tellingly, it’s Alex, the defiant robot, who provides an aural bridge between man and machine. His androgynous-sounding countertenor lies in the same range as Helena’s voice, and his vocal lines alternate between mechanically jagged phrasing and expressive lyricism. When he drops into a more natural chest voice, it’s to express the most human emotion of frustration.

Accompanying the four human and four robot characters is a seven-member ensemble of singing and dancing robots providing movement and adding a vocal sheen and depth to the musical texture. Dressed in costumes evoking early space fantasy films, they respond to costume elements, designed by the Social Body Lab, which light up in response to software events beyond the robots’ control. Their movement quality is mechanical, with increasing touches of individuality.

An eight-member chamber orchestra, playing 100 instruments, creates a vivid sound tapestry. In addition to two cellos and two basses, four percussion players wield instruments as varied as typewriter, electric keyboards, boomwhacker, and an electrified cello bow (another Social Body Lab design) that creates bird sounds. Synthesizers of various vintages invoke both classic science-fiction soundtracks and the frenzied energy of an out-of-control future. Rhythmic glitchiness — vocal and instrumental — indicates the lingering imperfections of the technology and casts unease. The results range from eerie, silken beauty to assaultive walls of sound.

R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ premiered May 28, 2022, in a dazzling site-specific production by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera.

The impact of Tapestry’s production was due in large part to integral design elements from OCAC’s Social Body Lab. But Lizée hopes to explore ways to present the work in other productions while preserving its sense of newness.

“What sound and music might be like 20 years into the future is certainly not easy to predict, but I imagined it might be presented in a multidimensional form rather than a linear form; breaking the fourth wall in some way,” the composer noted. “I imagined the music and sound to be constantly in motion — unpredictable and at times unstable in terms of orchestration choices, tempo, pacing, meter/rhythm, pitch and even sound sources (the melding of real and artifice — where was the sound coming from — a human emulating a machine or a machine emulating a human?). It was important that this extend into the way it was presented: all aspects of design, visuals, even the venue itself. It will be a challenge to express something so integral to the presentation of the opera.”