Wicked Local Waltham
Ignacio Laguarda
March 18, 2011

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.

Machover, considered to be one of the premier music technology minds in the world, has created interactive music systems for artists such as Prince, Yo-Yo Ma, Bono and Edge, and his software has been used in classrooms around the world. The technology for the massively popular “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” video games came out of his lab.

With his new opera, Machover created a world where “the stage is kind of the main character.”

In his “Chorus of Operabots,” a collection of 12 robots that move around the stage through remote control, three towering 15-foot “robotic walls” stand in the background, and a chandelier doubles as a musical instrument. The set and objects in the opera take center stage.

“The stage itself, the physical objects, actually help tell the story,” said Machover, from his personal studio, a converted barn that was formerly part of the Lyman Estate and is on the registry of historical buildings in the city.

The plot of “Death and the Powers” is about Simon Powers, a rich businessman and inventor who is disillusioned with the world around him and, reaching the end of his life, decides to attempt to preserve his legacy by “downloading” himself into his environment.

As a result, Powers takes physical control of his surroundings, called “the System.” James Maddalena, the actor who plays Powers, retreats to the orchestra pit once he is “downloaded” and is hooked up to a number of sensors that read his breathing, voice and gestures. All of those components are then translated in real time, though a process referred to as “disembodied performance,” to influence the scenic elements of the opera, such as the visuals, lighting and robotics.

Almost everything on the stage was built by MIT students, said Machover, who is a professor of music and media at MIT’s Media Lab.

“Working with a lot of technologies is always nerve-wracking,” he said. “But we’ve been doing this for a long time and I always bring extremely capable people into these projects. I trust my team.”

Nonetheless, a few days before the premiere, one of the robots almost went off the stage into the orchestra pit, as a new robot operator tried to control the movements.

“(These robots) are more fragile than a human being,” he said. “(They) fall over and don’t get up so easily.”

The robots are also very fast and clever, he said.

“I do understand those robots very well, not just as characters, but as everything they represent, because they’re real,” he said. “We’re not pretending they’re robots. We’re not pretending. It’s not like people in robot costumes … I identify with them because we built them and they’re kind of like part of us.”

“Death and the Powers” begins with the chorus of 12 robots trying to comprehend the concept of death. The robots essentially put on a play by taking on the personas of Powers, his wife, daughter and the inventor of the System, to try to understand death.

Machover, who employed the services of poet Robert Pinsky to pen the script, said he was interested in the concept of mortality and legacy when he conceived the opera.

“Sure enough, it turned into something about a man who wants to live forever,” said Machover. “Just like you probably can’t actually live forever, you probably can’t actually solve all the world’s problems, so the question then is, ‘what do you do? And that’s exactly what this opera is about.”

Although Machover is quick to proclaim his work as an “opera,” he said the structure is more attuned to a feature-length film.

There is no intermission and the show lasts 90 minutes. The quick pacing more resembles movies than traditional operas.

Machover mentioned Andrey Tarkovskiy’s “Solaris” as a thematic influence. ‘The System” in the opera is somewhat reminiscent of the “HAL” artificial intelligence computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” but Machover said his play differs from that movie in that it does not employ such a negative approach to the relationship between humans and technology.

“There’s a joy in these robots and there’s a joy in this technology and there’s a joy and humor in the way they react to people and I think there’s a realism in spending time in what technology can do,” he said. “It’s very far from a simple idea of technology being the evil thing and it’s going to go off on its own.”

The rest of the crew for the opera includes Production Designer Alex MacDowell, known for his work on the movie “Minority Report,” and director Diane Paulus. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs Machover’s music for the show.

“It’s not just a weird science fiction story,” said Machover. “It’s a story where these characters grapple with the most important things that we face every single day.”

Ignacio Laguarda can be reached at 781-398-8004 or ilaguarda@wickedlocal.com.

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