Cogito: John Branch




Opera and Technology Find a New Stage

One of my favorite words is periaktoi, a term for three-sided scene-setting devices used in the ancient Greek theater. That goes to show that the history of performance technology goes back nearly as far as the history of performance itself does. And for some of us, it’s nearly as interesting. Common expressions such as “limelight” and “stealing my thunder” originated in stage technology; Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s Magic Flute is still intriguing in part because it employs 18th-century stage machinery (painstakingly copied in a studio from devices still in use at Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace Theater, according to DVD notes), which now looks to us both archaic and ingenious. Current experiments in performance technology, such as plays of Shakespeare rendered in the online virtual world called Second Life, raise many questions about what’s possible and what’s desirable. One can’t help wondering what kind of performance it will be in which none of the participants have the age-old sense of shared presence in a single physical space.

Meanwhile, technology’s restless march also invites us to wonder about virtual consciousness and what it means to be human. Many of us are already cyborgs in a limited sense; as someone pointed out in the 90s, anyone with a pacemaker is part machine. We may soon go way beyond that: a concept much discussed among technophiles, called The Singularity, may make possible (as proponent Ray Kurzweil has put it) “immortal software-based humans.” Artificial intelligence, artificial life, and artificial consciousness aren’t new ideas. Still, the forefront of human ability now seems closer to—or less far away from—developing them than it did in the medieval era, with its legend of the Golem, or the early industrial era, with its clockwork automata and calculating machines.

So this is a good time for the appearance of Death and the Powers, a new opera composed by Tod Machover to a libretto by Robert Pinsky, which manages to touch on some of these questions of performance and consciousness while remaining mostly grounded in the ancient, familiar, and comfortable realm in which human performers appear in front of human spectators.

The gist of the story: A wealthy businessman and technical genius named Simon Powers, grappling with mortality, finds a way to cheat death—he transfers his personality into a computerized invention that he calls simply “The System.” Simon himself must now find new ways to deal with those he left behind—his wife, for instance, whom he can no longer touch in the accustomed ways. And because he is still of the world, while no longer living in it, he also still faces the demands of the world. The production faces Its own demands, too: how to represent Simon once he has entered The System.

The answer can be found in an approach developed by Machover and his collaborators that he calls Disembodied Performance. Once Simon (played by singer James Maddalena) enters The System, Maddalena remains offstage; his presence is rendered onstage by his processed voice, as well as by patterns of light, sound, and movement in the walls of the set and in a musical chandelier. These developments, and the opera as a whole, should surprise no one who recognizes Machover’s name from his work at the MIT Media Lab and on his own. But this may be the most elaborate playground he’s been able to create in some time, since the work also includes a chorus of OperaBots—yes, it really is a chorus (they have voices), and they really are robots, though not autonomous ones, since they’re controlled by a swarm of offstage technicians.

As for how Simon Powers deals with his issues, we will have to see the work to find out. Death and the Powers was first performed at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo last September. It will open at Boston’s American Repertory Theater (ART) on March 18, and at Chicago Opera Theater (COT) on April 2. The stage director for all three productions is the estimable Diane Paulus of ART, known for directing the recent Broadway revival of Hair. In operatic terms these are all the same production—same creative team, lead performers, and settings—but there may be differences, just as there was bound to be a difference between Simon Powers in the flesh and in The System.

In the future, we may be able to witness performances by just climbing into a pod in our house, and never have to actually go anywhere. But for now, there’s nothing to replace being there, in the auditorium, as the house lights go down. Those unable to attend can glean much from the Opera of the Future blog (at Since before last year’s premiere, it’s been the home of a substantial information campaign that’s a model of its kind, including ample video excerpts, interviews and transcripts, and review summaries with links to the originals. Not what you usually find for an opera, even a new one, but this use of modern Internet technology (not possible 15 or 20 years ago) fits the piece.

While we’re on this technological theme, I must mention two upcoming programs presented by the Juilliard Music Technology Center under the collective title Beyond the Machine 2011, which are not only easier to get to for those of us in New York, but also free. There will be two performances of a “technologized… multi-dimensional” approach to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat in Juilliard’s Willson Theater on March 24 and 25 at 8pm.

On March 26 (at 8pm) and March 27 (at 3pm), also in Willson Theater, a second programan advanced collaboration between Juilliard and the Streaming Museum—will lift the lid on the possible with We Write This to You from the Distant Future, and Sebastian Currier’s Nightmaze, a work for actor, orchestra, and video.To get a better dea of not only the two programs, but some of the cutting-edge surround (a pre-show exhibition of new media artworks and much, much more), arm yourself with the details of what’s in store at Beyond the MachineI mentioned that the performances are free, so you know that reservations are strongly recommended.                        John Branch on Facebook / John Branch on Twitter


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