Chicago Sun-Times
Andrew Patner
April 1, 2011

It’s not every opera that has its origins in a visit by a wealthy Iraqi widow from Monaco to a computer lab near Boston.

In fact, it’s probably safe to say that Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” set to open in a Chicago Opera Theater production on April 2 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, is the only such work to date. But, who knows? Given both the way the world is moving and the subject matter of a piece concerned with a billionaire genius abandoning his body and uploading his mind and self into a giant computer network called the System, such a pedigree might become a usual one.

Machover, 57, has been working with advanced electronics since he was invited to IRCAM, the experimental sound and music institute in Paris founded by composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, in 1978 while still a graduate student. He soon took over musical research at IRCAM and stayed there until 1985, when he came to what is now the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1985. He has remained there ever since as a professor/composer with a busy parallel career as an inventor of “hyper”-instruments, toys, and ... robots.

Kawther Al-Abood became president of the Friends of the Opera de Monte Carlo in 1997 and right away wanted to attract young audiences and return the historic opera house to its early 20th century role as the home of the European avant-garde. Conversations and research brought her to Machover and she decided to pay him a visit in 1999 and propose a futuristic commission. She even brought an Amherst (Mass.) College grad along with her to help make the case — Prince Albert, son of Monaco’s Prince Rainer and American actress Grace Kelly (and now Monaco’s ruler himself).

It was an offer Machover was not about to refuse, presumably in part because the commissioners offered deep pockets and a long time frame. But also because Al-Abood matched the composer’s spirit of adventure, even proposing that, whatever the work, its finale take place on the Mediterranean Sea, a stone’s throw from Monte Carlo’s opera house and its similarly famous casino.

Chicago’s Harris Theater also sits near a large body of water, but none of the stagings of “Death and the Powers” have taken that route. The world premiere took place in Monaco in September, 11 years after the project was first proposed, and the first U.S. performances just wrapped up, to very positive reviews, in Boston, presented by American Repertory Theater (ART) of Cambridge, Mass., and Opera Boston.

The MIT/Cambridge connection explains COT’s role. Machover knows Randy Weiner, the entrepreneurial theater producer and nightclub owner, and his wife, Diane Paulus, now artistic head of ART, who was introduced to staging opera when COT general director Brian Dickie brought her to Chicago to launch his tenure here with a breathtaking production of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in 2000. Weiner had an idea for a story — the billionaire Simon Powers hoping to outwit death by “uploading himself” into a network that includes the walls, furnishings and even the chandelier of his home — Paulus was interested in directing and Dickie saw this as a great fit for his own innovative opera company.

Eventually, Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate and a professor at Boston University, was brought in to work with Weiner on the story and then to write the libretto. (Pinsky’s work was published, without music, in the July/August 2010 issue of Chicago-based Poetry magazine.) The daring British film designer Alex McDowell (“Fight Club,” “Minority Report,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” among others) was tapped for design. And highly contemporary choreographer Karole Armitage was added to the team for movement and dance. Gil Rose of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducts the 90-minute intermissionless work.

But the major interest — more so, perhaps, even than Machover’s score, which has gone unmentioned in some reviews — “Death and the Powers” has attracted thus far is the way a variety of computers, electronics, lighting effects and even onstage “singing” and narrating “Operabots” are used to animate, and perhaps even “upload,” the work. McDowell designed the robots, but Machover’s students — techie nobility from around the world — did the engineering, experimentation and manufacture. And once Powers is “uploaded,” baritone James Maddalena (Nixon in many productions of John Adams’ “Nixon in China”) disappears from the stage into the orchestra pit, where a set of “disembodied performance” devices attached to his body cause the scenery and stage constructions to change color and shape depending upon his breathing, temperature and the like.

For Machover, the tensions of the opera, story and music are those between technology and “real life,” but not in the ways these issues are often framed. Also the composer of a “brain opera” that involves audience interaction and a setting of the late Philip K. Dick’s science fiction puzzle “VALIS,” Machover looks to the “human” side of his machines and the rebellion of an industrial and financial genius (think, perhaps, a Steve Jobs) against the constraints of natural life but does not propose any conclusions. He’s probably waiting for the next knock on the door of his lab.