Gods and Robots

Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,
American Repertory Theatre with MIT’s Fast Arts Festival and Chicago
Opera Theater, Cutler Majestic Theatre,
Boston, Massachusetts, 25 March 2011;
and Prometheus Bound,
American Repertory Theater, Oberon,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 29 March 2011

By Leann Davis Alspaugh

You know you’re in a theatre full of science geeks when the line “What is this Death…is it a form of entropy?” gets a big laugh. Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera made its American premiere in March 2011 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, a co-production of American Repertory Theater, MIT’s Fast Arts Festival, and Chicago Opera Theater. The production brought together composer Tod Machover, poet laureate Robert Pinsky as librettist, director Diane Paulus, and Gil Rose conducting the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP). The MIT Media Lab assembled high-tech forces on stage and off, ranging from remote-controlled Operabots and video-infused periaktoi to “sound-producing Hyperinstruments.” A bank of 40 computers and a wireless network ran the software that controlled the robot choreography and coordinated the sound and video environment. Puppeteers were stationed on the catwalk above the stage to assume manual control in case the robots ran amok.

In the abstract setting of the opera’s prologue, the robots tilt their triangular-shaped heads and wonder about such baffling concepts as suffering, memory, and the lessons of the Organic Age. Their elegiac opening is also tinged with irony as they introduce the evening’s program: “Units assembled for the ritual/Performance at command,/As the Human Creators have ordained,/In memory of the Past.” They whiz away and morph into the opera’s human characters, the four members of the Powers family.

The wealthy Simon Powers (James Maddalena) wants to cheat death by immersing himself in the System, technology that will enable him to stay in touch with the physical world after his death. He is abetted in this project by his protégé Nicholas (Hal Cazalet). If the Borg-like black cladding on his left arm is any indication, Nicholas is already in the process of being assimilated. Simon’s wife Evvy (Emily Albrink) and daughter Miranda (Sara Heaton) each have different reactions to Powers’ transformation. Evvy tries to accept her husband’s latest caprice and is eventually, according to the libretto, absorbed into the System. To this viewer, her transformation was a descent into madness rather than an apotheosis. Miranda’s reaction, on the other hand, is a refusal to accept the unnaturalness of her father’s fate. She is so insistent in her need for her father that she even convinces him to return for a short time.

Audiences have been much preoccupied with the technological elements of this opera. Indeed, the stagecraft is mesmerizing – the Venus-flytrap-like armature described as a chandelier is especially beautiful. But once the in-the-moment effect has worn off, there isn’t much left to sustain an impression of real originality. Instead of being provocative, these innovations often seem to work against the rich characterizations of, in particular, Maddalena and Heaton.

What prevents Death and the Powers from reaching the kind of vividness that makes opera really work is its music. Known as “America’s most wired composer,” Tod Machover is deeply interested in experimentation and pushing the boundaries of opera. With Death and the Powers, Machover has said that he wants to use technology to bring the audience closer to the performers. There is no question that he achieves an accomplished level of integration between the electronic soundscape, acoustic music by the 15-members of BMOP, and the programmed stage effects. Without a convincing musical bridge between the props on stage and the people delivering the story, however, the connection is lost.

Machover’s score is layered with energy and affecting passages, but it fails to achieve a dramatic trajectory. The composer’s reliance on repetitive phrases along with electronic sounds and processed vocalizations disrupt the opera’s momentum. Instead of a whole coalescing from “the meeting of organic and the inorganic,” the opera’s disparate parts become dead-end iterations that work against the magnetism of its human elements. Anyone who has ever felt the deflation at the end of a movie too reliant on computer generated effects knows the feeling.

Part of this failing lies with Pinsky’s libretto. Seeking clever word play, he falls back on tired puns: “I am a producer./And business is my wares./Lady’s Wear, Software,/ Hardware—Artware,/Warware, Peaceware—/I am in Every Ware:/Or you might call it Being Ware—.” Looking for accessibility, he resorts to tin-eared colloquialisms: “What does it matter?/Simulation, place,/Medium, voice,/ Face, shmace.” The best lines come from other poets, as when Simon sums up the opera’s theme by quoting May Swenson’s “Question”:

“Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt . . .
when Body my good
bright dog is dead.”

Death and the Powers centers on the kind of “human perfectability” trope that has become a speculative fiction standby in everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to The Matrix trilogy and the man-machine hybrids of Star Trek’s Borg. An operatic treatment of this idea in a highly-technological age offers fresh possibilities of insights into ideas about the self, performance, identity, and authenticity. However, if these ideas are at work in Death and the Powers, they are buried under layers of enervating technology and soulless effects.

Early spring productions at American Repertory Theater also included two new works adapted from Greek plays. Both Sophocles’ Ajax in a new translation by Charles Connaghan and the rock musical of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound reinterpreted well-known themes in startlingly modern ways. The good news is that neither Ajax as a desert warrior suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder nor Prometheus as a leatherclad victim of tattooed tyrants sacrificed classical power to contemporary polemics.

To be sure, the creators of Prometheus Bound didn’t miss the chance to exploit a play that portrays a god punished for his kindness to mankind. Best known for his work with the metal band System of a Down, composer and social justice activist Serj Tankian seized on the theme of tyranny in Steven Sater’s new translation. Director Diane Paulus reinforced this point by partnering with Amnesty International. During the show’s run, eight Amnesty appeals were highlighted, ranging from victims of sexual violence in Africa to prisoners of conscience in Vietnam; the performance I saw urged action on behalf of Reggie Clemons, a prisoner on death row in Missouri.

This intense and exciting production gained much from being performed at Oberon, A.R.T.’s nightclub-style space. Just as the season-opening Cabaret had immersed the audience in Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, so Prometheus patrons found themselves up close and personal with every minute of the god’s travails. Seating was available only around the perimeter of the room, while those with dance floor tickets dodged a rolling dais and huge ladders – not to mention actors climbing over patrons’ tables.

Being a rock musical about “a damned god in chains,” the production design leaned heavily on goth, punk, and urban grunge. Tattoos were obligatory as was glittery makeup. Hermes’ gold-winged Nikes were an especially witty touch. As always, the A.R.T.’s technical elements were perfect. The head mics worked without a glitch, and the sound mix was well-balanced.

The vocal settings called for high-volume belting as well as delicate harmonies. Uzo Aduba was affecting as Io, the maiden seduced by Zeus and turned into a heifer. The power ballad “What I Think of Myself” was a heart-rending attempt to understand why fecklessness should have such freakish consequences. Gavin Creel’s Prometheus was strong and subtle. Gabe Ebert’s Hermes was by turns menacing and comic – “Who does a god have to smite to get a cocktail around here?!”

The stage proper was occupied by the eight-member Choke & Jerk Band. They deftly charged through Tankian’s score, executing an impressive array of musical ideas from the self-righteous anthem, the ethereal ballad, the anguished lament, and the head-banging rock song. Surely, no straight-play treatment of Aeschylus could match the thrill of hearing Prometheus’ famous monologue, which culminates in “All human culture comes from Prometheus,” as a stadium-size rock anthem.

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