Interview: Tod Machover, creator of The Death and the Powers
You can’t take it with you when you go. But what if you don’t really have to go? This is the case for Simon Powers, the central character of Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera, up at the Cutler Majestic Theatre beginning Friday.
Like many of us, Powers isn’t too crazy about dying. Unlike us, the 60-something inventor/businessman has the bucks and the brains to build the “System”—a complex robotic world in which he can download himself so that his voice and visions don’t quite leave this mortal coil.
Powers, played by opera great James Maddalena, exits early in the production and soon becomes a disembodied off-stage presence who communicates through a network of mobile robots, movable LED-flashing walls and a gigantic, musical chandelier.
Machover had the germ of this idea ten years ago. He developed it with librettist Robert Pinsky (a former Poet Laureate), A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus and writer Randy Weiner. Alex MacDowell, who did production design for Minority Report, constructed the set. Death and the Powers debuted last September in Monte Carlo.
Machover is the head of MIT’s Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group. A cellist, he’s written scads of songs and four previous operas. As an inventor, he developed the technology behind Rock Band and Guitar Hero. TOB spoke with Machover about putting together the world’s first robot opera.
TOB: There’s a slew of robots in pop culture—from Metropolis to Star Wars to Futurama. Do you have a favorite?
Tod Machover: I guess the one that comes to mind is HAL [in 2001: A Space Odyssey]. The relationship between the human being and that robot, since they’re out in space, is so integral. In HAL’s technology you see a reflection of what people are. One of the great things about HAL that’s kind of related to Death and the Powers is that HAL’s in that spaceship, but he’s not really in any one place. He’s not like a Star Wars droid walking around. Robots that appeal to me are not just copies of human beings, but are something else.
You have a robot that’s a musical chandelier, among others.
We definitely shied away from anything that looks like a human being. There are 12 “Operabots” that don’t look anything like people. But they are the ones that are individuals—thin, with a triangular base and wheels, and a three-sided thing at the top that kind of represents a head. They’re quite quick. They interact most directly with the characters. Then there are the walls themselves, this room that Simon Powers downloads himself into. Those are also robots, very big, rectangular walls, that also have wheels and eyes and ears. They are automatically piloted so they know where they’re going and hopefully don’t fall into the orchestra pit.
Which came first: The technology or the concept for the opera?
Even before both, there were a couple of different themes and ideas that interested me. The first one was actually the idea of making a stage. I didn’t at the beginning think of a stage coming alive, but I thought of a stage that physically could help tell a story. But we don’t want people thinking about the technology. We want people to feel these are objects we accept. On the other hand, it’s important that it’s a live show. It’s not a movie; it’s not fake. This is the most complicated project I’ve done and I’ve done a lot of crazy ones.
You’re combining lots of elements.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of music performance. But if you think about stagecraft, a lot of live theater feels pretty old-fashioned and lacks a lot of the things we take for granted in film and even video games. It lacks close-ups, it lacks quick shifts in time, it lacks an immersive feeling. With this opera, one of the thoughts I had was what can we do on a stage to bring back some of those qualities of magic?
Maddalena, as Powers, disappears but continues to sing. Where is he?
He’s actually down in the orchestra pit with the musicians and the conductor. We built a special sound isolation booth right in front of the conductor. We measure his voice, gestures, muscle tension and breathing so we keep a sense of his emotions. All of that is reflected in the sound and what you see onstage. His presence is translated through the stage, the objects and walls.
You’re dealing with a different kind of life after death.
It was partly the question of mortality, but also legacy. How difficult it is for any of us to capture and share all the texture of our lives? We made a story about this guy who wants to leave everything, wants to share everything and wants to have a living presence. So he splits and turns on this system. He’s going to leave his memories, his personality and his ability to relate to everybody. His wife and daughter, his research assistant, the people he works with, they’re all left with the stage. What does that mean to them? And what does it mean to share all of yourself? How do you accept that maybe you can’t share everything and maybe nobody wants everything from someone else’s life?
How do you describe the music? Tonal? Atonal? Melodic? Lush?
I have my own style. It’s hard to describe, but number one, it’s very melodic. I’m a cellist and the first impulse I have is that there’s always a melody somewhere, even if it’s not obvious. Number two, it’s very colorful music. It’s quite rhythmic and a lot of it is tonal. Sometimes it sounds orchestral; sometimes it sounds electronic. We’ve got a very sophisticated sound system so the sound is all around you. I think of my music as being like whitewater rafting. If you’ve got a good guide, you know you’re not going to fall out. Being in the boat is kind of like following the melody, but there’s quite a lot going on around it that adds to the experience.
“Death and the Powers” plays at the Cutler Majestic Theatre March 18, 20, 22 and 25.