Death and the Powers: Robots Are Coming. And They Can Sing.

Hal Cazalet as "Nicholas" in the Dallas Opera's Death and the Powers.
Hal Cazalet as "Nicholas" in the Dallas Opera's Death and the Powers.
Jill Steinberg

Robert Orth is splayed on his back, flailing his arms and legs from side to side with big, heavy flops. "Rememmmmberrr!" he wails in a rich, lyrical voice. "The memory chamber! Touch, too much. Too much unremembered!" He uses his legs to drag his body across the floor of the rehearsal space as he half-moans, half-sings, "As I draw nearrrreeeer."

Suddenly the actor breaks character and sits up; the music from a nearby synthesizer comes to an abrupt stop at his lead. "What exactly am I being drawn nearer to?" Orth asks his director, as he gestures toward a makeshift prop, "Towards that wall? Or maybe this way?"

Orth is rehearsing a scene from The Dallas Opera's production of Death and the Powers, a futuristic opera by composer Tod Machover that will run at the Winspear Opera House February 12-16. Orth plays the opera's protagonist, Simon Powers, a dying billionaire who longs to live forever. In this scene, facing imminent physical death, Powers is uploading his consciousness into a computer system.

Death and the Powers: Robots Are Coming. And They Can Sing.
Jill Steinberg

When Orth delivers this monologue from the floor of the Winspear's stage during a matinee performance, three electronic light walls will surround him, pulsing shades of electric pink and blue. As part of an unprecedented global simulcast, an audience of thousands both in Dallas and around the world will watch as he "draws nearer" to the massive, 2-ton walls. In the audience's hands, iPads and iPhones will buzz and "the system" will take over their devices with interactive graphics as it consumes Powers' consciousness onstage.

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Today, however, inside the opera company's utilitarian Fair Park warehouse/rehearsal space, wooden props stand in for giant animatronic light-walls and harsh fluorescent bulbs light the "stage". Orth's audience consists of a half-dozen or so people seated at a long row of folding tables, busily making notes on laptops or in musical scores. Everyone listens intently as the singer and director launch into a somewhat metaphysical discussion about blocking and physical movements ("Yes, you're being drawn into the system, but the system is not necessarily a specific physical place on stage.")

At the end of the long row of tables, three 20-somethings are hunched over laptops, feverishly producing lines of code on their screens and whispering to each other as they listen to the rehearsal. One of them mouths the words in unison with Orth as he sings.

The opera's composer, Tod Machover, is professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. This group of graduate and undergraduate students are part of his team. During the opera, these whiz kids from MIT will act as robot-puppeteers. Perched 30 feet above the stage on scaffolding built specifically for this production, they'll control the movements of a group of robots who will join Orth and the other humans on stage.

Death and the Powers is the result of a collaborative effort among Machover, the MIT Media Lab, story writers Robert Pinsky and Randy Weiner and director Diane Paulus. Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate, penned the libretto (the text of the opera). The opera was premiered in Monaco in 2010. In the U.S. it has been premiered in Boston with the American Repertory Theater and in Chicago at Chicago Opera Theater.

It was in Chicago that The Dallas Opera's CEO Keith Cerny first saw Death and the Powers. "I knew within five minutes that I absolutely had to bring this piece to Dallas," he said during an interview in the opera company's downtown offices last month. "It's very creative, but it also challenges what people think an opera is without resorting to shock tactics."

Cerny and a friend from San Francisco, Bob Ellis, attended the same performance in Chicago. Ellis wanted to bring the opera to San Francisco, but plans had faltered because the opera theater there was too big and they were struggling to find a suitable venue. Together with Machover, Ellis and Cerny began to think creatively about how they could work together as co-producers. They also thought big: If they were already going to simulcast the opera from Dallas to San Francisco, why not take it to an international audience? And with Machover and MIT's help, why not explore interactive elements?

The result of their brainstorming is something that has never been done before. During the Sunday, February 16 matinee performance of Death and the Powers, the opera will be broadcast live to remote audiences at venues in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas (The Perot Museum), Philadelphia, Boston, New York, London and Stockholm. Audiences in remote locations will be able to download an app on their tablet or phone that will allow them to interact with the show, at points even influencing lighting and other elements inside the Winspear Opera House.

It is this interactive element that is new. Certainly simulcasts have been done before, but Machover says the goal here was not just to stream the performance like a movie, but rather to enhance the experience. "If you're in one of these remote sites," he explains, "you'll sometimes just see the show staged and sometimes you'll see the show staged through some sort of lens. Sometimes you'll see other imagery or new affects that we've made. It's way better than a movie. Hopefully it will bring the audience into the story in a different way."

Machover envisioned something that would take remote audiences into the character's minds or shows them the story from the robot's perspective. "It's almost like something from the show has jumped off the screen into your lap and in some simple way its there and you're literally touching it," he explains. He also wanted it to be beautiful. "We don't necessarily have to show the same thing on every screen," he explains. "So it could be that there is a blast of light on the big screen that then goes like pshhhaaaaaaw [he demonstrates with mini hand-explosions] in the hall, so the whole audience is like an extension of the display. One way of thinking of it is that you're like a pixel in part of the show."

Audiences inside the Winspear will not be using their phones, but they will experience the results of some of the interactive elements. During the climax of the opera, remote audiences will be cued to shake their devices. The data will then be uploaded to computer servers at MIT, processed, and sent back to the Winspear Opera House where it will affect the colors in the hall's Moody Chandelier.

What audiences inside the Winspear will get to experience is a fascinating and complex array of sounds. Traditionally, everything coming form an opera stage is acoustic, but Machover's score calls for electronically produced sounds to be mixed with amplified instruments and singers. Machover explains the amplification techniques: "One is called ambisonics, which is basically a fancy surround sound technique." For this, TDO is bringing in hundreds of temporary speakers that will be installed around the theater. "The other is called wavefront synthesis. It's actually one very long, very thin speaker at the front of the stage that creates a single long waveform. This new technique that we invented actually pinpoints where the amplification is coming from -- each singer has a little tracking device on their costume -- so this speaker actually makes it sound like the amplification is coming out of their body."

Back in rehearsals, sans robots and wavefront synthesis, a small French-Canadian woman with shortly cropped hair and an energetic smile is perched above everyone else in the room with a slender baton in her hand. It is conductor Nicole Paiement's job to bring all of these elements together -- Robert Orth singing from the floor, the robots being programmed by the MIT team, the live orchestra and the electronic sounds she will cue.

"I guess that is going to be the biggest challenge," Paiement says over lunch during a rehearsal break, "to make sure that all of these other elements don't interfere with the beautiful music-making. I think that one of the difficulties of a piece like this is that the music could get lost. But, if we do it right, the music will come through. I want that very much."


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