Death and the Powers: A Robotic Opera


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Opera can seem like a staid and conservative form, but I have found it a fruitful context for exploring radical ideas and unusual sounds. That was certainly the case for my most recent opera project, DEATH AND THE POWERS. Interested in exploring mortality and legacy through integrated performance media, my collaborators and I have attempted to combine sounds, story, singers/actors and performance robots so that the experience is compelling and haunting for an audience, not distancing and alienating as technology in performance so often is.

Working with writer Robert Pinsky, director Diane Paulus, designer Alex McDowell, and my team at the MIT Media Lab, we developed all strands of the artistic language in parallel, so that the movement of objects on stage or the shimmering of lights tell the story as fundamentally as do words or melodies. And I have pushed further with my longstanding interest in combining diverse musical materials – bringing together voices, instruments, synthetic concoctions and morphed recordings from the environment – so that the contrast and transitions between everyday life and the eternal, digital life of “The System” could be dramatized and felt most deeply.

Along with Operabots interacting with live actors, a Musical Chandelier engaging in an erotic duet with a mezzo-soprano, and a set of three kinetic, choreographed walls that exude sights and sounds, these elements represent the eternal presence of the departed main character, Simon Powers, his attempt to continue his interactions with his loved ones once he is gone (deceased? transmogrified? digitized?), and the reactions of those who are left behind.

I hope that the video included here will give you an idea of the texture, sound and impact of DEATH AND THE POWERS, which premiered in Monaco in fall 2010 and had its U.S. premiere performances in spring 2011. Following the links below will allow you to see much more material. We just recorded the music for CD release in May 2012, and we start a new tour in July 2012, beginning in San Francisco.

The integration of materials and experiences – within and beyond sound – in POWERS feels new in my work, and it is something that I will continue to pursue in my future projects.

4 Responses to Death and the Powers: A Robotic Opera

  1. Rick Rees says:

    Is this new tour still on? I can’t find any info on it.
    Got a date/venue for San Francisco in July?

  2. Looks like funding fell through: I’d like to see “Death and the Powers” too!

  3. Tod Machover says:

    Hi Rick and Alison – Thanks for your comments about DEATH AND THE POWERS in San Francisco. Just got back from there, and indeed, although the producers raised significant funds for the performances this summer, they’ve decided to postpone until more can be raised. We are setting new dates now and should have news before long. In the meantime, we recorded for CD (on the BMOP/sound label) and I’ll be doing post-production this summer for an anticipated November release. I appreciate your interest, and also really hope that you’ll be able to see the opera live before long. Best, Tod

    • Tod Machover says:

      …meant to say “we recorded POWERS for CD”……Stay tuned. On a different note (pardon the pun), you might be interested in my latest “unusual” project: I have invited the city of Toronto to compose a new piece WITH me over the coming months; premiere in March 2013. Info at Tod