On Wednesday night my phone blinked on the nightstand. It was a text from a friend who had just seen The Dallas Opera's opening night production of Tod Machover's much buzzed about sci-fi opera, Death and the Powers. "Robot opera. I dunno," she typed. "The technology is a little . . . I mean, have they ever seen a Lady Gaga concert? That's immersive. The System should've been immersive!"
On Friday night, as the robots' lights dimmed and the stage went dark inside the Winspear, a timid applause erupted. Wait, was it over? A lone robot blinked. A stagehand in black swiftly appeared to switch off the stubborn droid. The applause became more confident, but most of the audience remained seated. Eventually, a small group stood to applaud the cast. This is the first time I've seen such a conflicted response from an audience after an opera in the Winspear. More often then not, they jump to their feet.
At dinner after the performance, my phone buzzed again. Another friend: "So what did you think?!"
On Saturday, over cocktails, more friends discussed the opera. They debated whether or not the technology was impressive, whether the sound of the orchestra and singers blended with the prerecorded digital bleeps and bloops successfully and which singer they liked best.
Personally? I liked it. The cast was strong, the music interesting and beautiful, the story weird, the pacing quick, the production slick and the sound in the hall, at least from my seats on the floor, mesmerizing.
But what I liked more than the opera was having a chance to discuss it with a wide range of people. Old and young, opera fans and opera newbies, everyone didn't share the same opinion, but everyone seemed to have a strong one.
Most opera is strange. There are usually narrative leaps that require a hefty suspension of disbelief on the audience's behalf. In Verdi's La traviata, for example, the heroine rejects her suitor, falls in love with him, moves in with him, breaks up with him, gets back together with him and dies, all in just three relatively short Acts.
Audiences usually excuse these dramatic jerks and jolts because they are understood to be a means to an end. Something sensational is required so that the actors have an excuse to emote through song.
If there is a flaw in Death and the Powers, it is a classic operatic mistake: The plot is disjointed, attempting too many themes in too short a time. Because of this the characters seem under-developed, at times making it difficult to connect with them no matter how beautiful the singing.
The basic premise of Death and the Powers is easy enough to buy into: Simon Powers is a dying billionaire who, facing physical death, attempts to live forever through a sort of cyber-immortality. With the help of his assistant, Nicholas, he uploads his consciousness to "The System," leaving his wife and daughter behind in human form.
That plot, however, is actually the plot of a play-within-the-play. The opera takes place in a "post organic world" inhabited solely by robots; they are reenacting Simon Powers' story as part of a ritualistic ceremony.
Still, I'm in.
The problem occurs when librettist Robert Pinsky, co-creator of the story and former U.S. Poet Laureate, takes on too many big themes. Is this an opera about mortality and immortality? Is it about death or the beauty of human life? Is it about the ephemeral quality of memory? Is it about the dangers of excessive greed, consolidation of wealth, or the influence of money over politicians and the media? Is it about familial relationships? Sex? Suffering? Poetry and art? Power? Technology? The coming apocalypse?
The answer to all of these is yes. And that's a lot to tackle in one ninety-minute Act. Especially when these themes are being communicated verbally with intricate, poetic, pun-filled wordplay, playful syntax, humor, literary references and sometimes-abstract dialogue.
Musically, however, this opera succeeds where it falters dramatically. Never tiresome or boring, it moves organically from aria to aria, duet to recitative. If Pinsky's libretto is a dramatic stumbling block, it is a musical goldmine, and one that composer Tod Machover plunders with great success. All of the singing, whether punchy and playful, intricately interwoven or tenderly lyric, is propelled by a complex, catchy, propulsive rhythmic accompaniment. Conductor Nicole Paiement made beautiful sense out of technically challenging music, and the small chamber orchestra consistently pulled off her vision.
One thing that nearly everyone (myself included) could agree upon was that the star of this production was soprano Joélle Harvey in the role of Simon Powers' daughter, Miranda. Maybe it was her character's humanity that gave us empathy for her. In the end, she is the only one of the four main actors who chooses flesh and blood (and inevitably death) instead of digital immortality. That, and the fact that her voice was easy to love: strong, sweet and consistently perfect in pitch and timbre.
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Vocally, Hal Cazalet, the lyric tenor who perhaps over-played an enthusiastic Nicholas, also shone. Across the board, the core cast -- led by Robert Orth as Simon Powers and rounded out by Patricia Risley in the role of his wife, Evvy -- sang beautifully, clearly in command of the opera's complicated texts and timing. The robots, too, had great voices. I wanted more of them. And the only other humans on stage -- Frank Kelley (countertenor), David Kravitz (baritone) and Tom McNichols (bass) -- made for a fascinating and unique trio.
Alex McDowell's production design and the MIT Music and Media Lab's set was sleek and minimalistic. Visually, it seemed to underwhelm the more youthful, tech-savvy audience members, but, again, it was in the realm of sound that the technology succeeded.
On Sunday, the opera simulcast the matinee performance of Death and the Powers to nine remote locations across the U.S. and Europe, including the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. I went to the Perot for a second look, planning to get a feel for the interactive elements available on the app and skip out after 45 minutes or so to enjoy the Sunday sun. I ended up staying for the whole opera. The app provided some moments of humor and limited entertainment, but it didn't work flawlessly and was less appealing than I'd hoped. I stayed for the music, which this time, instead of just liking, I really loved. In the end, that's why every opera fan overlooks awkward story lines and weird close-ups of stage makeup: the opportunity to hear that fleeting moment, that aria, that harmonic joining of voices that lives in your memory.
Kudos to Tod Machover and The Dallas Opera for giving us a strong production that brought out a different than usual crowd. And more important, giving us something to talk about.