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.
If you missed American Repertory Theater (ART) and MIT’s FAST Arts Festival one-act, 90-minute production of “Death and the Powers:The Robots’ Opera,” I hope it returns, for your sake. You won’t see the likes of it again. Writers Tod Machover, Robert Pinsky and Randy Weiner, with ART Artistic Director-Director Diane Paulus have struck theatrical gold with this innovative, futuristic opera that makes every minute on stage breathtaking.
Remember “CNN opera”?
In the 1980s and 1990s, when John Adams was producing works like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, that became the go-to label for new operas based on stories drawn from the day’s headlines.
“CNN opera’’ isn’t used much any more, now that many stage directors update productions, turning even centuries-old operas–from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Handel’s Hercules to Mozart’s Don Giovanni–into compelling, contemporary stories.
If technology should ever allow us to achieve a kind of digital immortality, what effect will this have on our loved ones, not to mention the moral and social order? That’s just one of the Deep Questions posed by Tod Machover’s sci-fi fantasy, “Death and the Powers, the Robots’ Opera,” which, in its Midwest premiere, will launch Chicago Opera Theater’s spring festival season Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Ironically, the composer’s cautionary tale of technological hubris is crammed with technology.
In her director’s note for the American premiere of Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera, which was composed by Tod Machover, with a libretto by poet Robert Pinsky, Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, wrote that this “work of music-theater . . .
Composer Tod Machover heads the Opera of the Future project at MIT’s Media Lab, and that term nicely describes his “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” which was given its U.S. premiere by the American Repertory Theater in Boston last week. It is clearly recognizable as opera: It has a story and characters, and its full-blooded arias, elegantly illuminating the apt (if occasionally self-conscious) text by the poet Robert Pinsky, are sung with passionate intensity by humans.
Technological wonders go only so far towards achieving results in the opera house. Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers: the Robots’ Opera, the latest work by a mainstay of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has a dramatis personae that includes 12 functioning robots. Yet the quality of Machover’s music, steeped in the language of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez, wedded to an imaginative libretto by Robert Pinsky, is what makes the opera worth seeing.
Would it be hyperbolic to suggest you’ve never see anything quite like this? I don’t think so. Here’s the deal: Simon Powers is the central character of Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” up at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Tuesday March 22 & Friday March 25. Like many of us, Powers isn’t too crazy about dying. But Powers, in his 60s and facing the final (or is it?) curtain would like to keep on going in some manner.
Tod Machover’s new sci-fi opera, “Death and the Powers,’’ sets its gaze on subjects both ancient and ultra-modern. In the former camp is the question of whether the soul, or something beyond the body, can live after our death. In the latter camp is the question of the deeper meanings of our infatuation with technology — the way we experience our lives increasingly through its prism.
Tod Machover’s commute from his home in Waltham to the MIT Media Lab might as well be done in a souped-up DeLorean.
The composer and music technology innovator drives from his home, an 18th-century farm next to the Lyman Estate, to the state-of-the-art lab, where some of the most cutting-edge technology is being developed.
It’s not surprising, then, that Machover would be the first to incorporate fully functional robots into the old-world medium of opera in his latest production, “Death and the Powers,” set for its U.S. debut tonight at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston.
The American Repertory Theater production of Death and the Powers: The Robot's Opera, starring baritone James Maddalena, begins performances March 18 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College.
Maddalena, who recently reprised his performance in the title role of Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera, created the role of inventor Simon Powers in the world premiere of Death and the Powers at l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo last September. He returns for the A.R.T. production, which will run through March 25.
Several months ago, during a rehearsal for “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,’’ a robot began to throb, vibrate, and power down.
A programmer ran onstage with a screwdriver, aiming to fix the machine. But the opera’s director, Diane Paulus, had a different response. She was thrilled. During that moment of unpredictability, the robot had behaved like an actor.
“That’s great,’’ said Paulus. “Can you get it to do that again?’’
I’m late with my thoughts on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project‘s “Bolcom with BMOP” evening last Sunday. Which may have something to do with the fact that I was slightly, but not entirely, disappointed by the program. I was drawn to the concert because I’m a fan of its eponymous star, the distinguished American composer William Bolcom - or at least I’m a huge fan (like many people) of his piano and vocal music (a favorite selection, “The Poltergeist,” above).
“When writing a score, there’s got to be something that you can do that will not just be a nice honor to the play, or the book, or the film you’re dealing with, but some aspect that maybe can explore something that the play just couldn’t do. Once I know what the first page [of music] is, then the rest will come.”
— William Bolcom
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project Bolcom w/ BMOP program last night was exceptionally good. A thread held in common by each of the works was their concern for spirituality, for Time, and for how we experience our short lives and the lives of those we love.
One year after marveling at Lisa Bielawa’s Kafka Songs at the Other Minds festival—almost in time for the next Other Minds festival, actually—I’m finally realizing that Kafka Songs has been available on CD for years. Call me slow.
Bielawa more recently worked with Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen on a double violin concerto, performed with Colin Jacobsen. On this piece, as on Kafka Songs, Kihlstedt’s voice and violin are put to use simultaneously, creating a role that’s rare in classical music and probably challenging to pull off.
Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse is and odd assemblage dealing with, as the title suggests, the building of a perfect home, with a libretto filled with architectural details improvised on by Mr. Mackey and tenor and fellow librettist Rinde Eckert. In addition to Mr. Eckert, who sings not only as tenor but with falsetto, and functions as speaking actor as well, the work is scored for a small Hilliard Ensemble-type vocal consort, an electric guitar quartet, and large orchestra. The music is varied in its influences, but is unambiguously American in tone and aesthetic stance.
Lisa Bielawa is a major new voice in music, and this two-disc set contains some of the most blindingly beautiful and original works I have heard in a while. Time Out New York describes Bielawa as possessing a “prodigious gift for mingling persuasive melodicism with organic experimentation,” and that well captures my feelings. Her In medias res (Concerto for Orchestra) combines traditional harmonies with shifting tonalities.
Baritone James Maddalena, who recently reprised his performance in the title role of Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera, will star in Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera for the American Repertory Theater.
Maddalena also created the role of inventor Simon Powers in the world premiere of Death and the Powers at l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo last September and will return for the A.R.T. production, which will run March 18-25 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College.
The Grammy Awards are Sunday night in Los Angeles, and sure, big national music names like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Neil Young will be waiting to hear if they’ve won. But Boston’s talent will be well-represented, too.
And The Nominees Are… Harpist Sarah Schuster Ericsson
It was a big decision, but harpist Sarah Schuster Ericsson finally settled on what to wear to the ceremony in LA — a long, light-gray silk gown with a scooped back. She even modeled it for me in her bedroom.
Steven Mackey is a busy guy. In addition to playing the guitar and teaching music at Princeton, he composes some very large scale musical works, like Dreamhouse, his piece for singer/actor, vocal quartet, electric guitar quartet, and orchestra, which was commissioned for the Holland Festival in 2003.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s recording of this work is nominated for four GRAMMY© awards: Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Engineered Album, Classical and Producer Of The Year, Classical, for producer David Frost.