Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant

Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant is an opera by composer Tod Machover, developed at the MIT Media Lab. The one-act, full evening work tells the story of Simon Powers, a rich and powerful businessman and inventor, who wishes to perpetuate his existence beyond the decay of his physical being. Reaching the end of his life, Powers faces the question of his legacy: “When I die, what will I leave behind? What can I control? Can technology extend my limits?” Using his vast resources, Powers ‘downloads’ himself into his environment, turning every object in his surroundings–books, furniture, walls, etc.–into a living version of himself, called The System. His family, friends and business associates are left to figure out how this transformation impacts their relationship with him and their ability to move forward with their own lives and legacies.

Couched in music that is ravishing and radical, Death and the Powers showcases visionary Media Lab performance technologies like Disembodied Performance, which translates Simon Powers’ offstage presence into an expressively animated stage, a musical Chandelier, and a chorus of robots.

Death and the Powers was warmly received by audiences and critics alike at its world-premiere performances in Monaco (September 2010) and at the United States premieres with the American Repertory Theater in Boston and at Chicago Opera Theater (March and April 2011).

Generous support for Death and the Powers has been provided by the Monaco-based Futurum Association.

Composer’s Note

Note by Tod Machover

All big projects start in unusual ways; opera projects more than most. Death and the Powers began with a visit to my MIT Media Lab office over 10 years ago by Kawther Al-Abood, who asked whether I’d be interested in working on an innovative opera to be premiered in Monaco. Her bold vision of opera-as-laboratory for new ideas and galvanizing force for new audiences resonated with mine; and her suggestion that we might imagine a Finale in which the Mediterranean itself–viewed from the spectacular perch of the Garnier Opera House in Monte-Carlo–could rise in animated sculptural form convinced me that I’d found an ideal partner for what has been an unusual project.

Although I decided not to choreograph the Mediterranean (even I have my limits of practicality!), the idea of a story told through the melding of morphing objects and sculptural sounds did stick. And combined with my deep and growing interest in the process of aging, of leaving a legacy, and of what can be passed on to loved ones–across generation–and what perhaps cannot, the basis for Powers was born.

It took an amazing group of collaborators to develop and create this opera, and one could not have hoped for a more remarkable “dream team–: from the mythically playful story crafted by Robert Pinsky and Randy Weiner; to Robert’s incisive, lyrical, potently indelible poetry; to Diane Paulus’ brilliance at bringing human actors and smart machines to vivid life on stage with deepest resonance; to Alex McDowell bringing his film design expertise to the stage for the first time, imagining robots and set as dynamic characters and integrated system; to Karole Armitage making the whole ensemble dance and flow, like–but richer than–drops of water in a vast sea. And on and on through all levels of the production.

As complex software provides the connecting tissue for all the technical aspects of the show, I imagined the music as establishing the underlying continuity and dramatic flow for Death and the Powers. The musical language is as varied as in anything I have done, covering a range of expression from quizzical, comical robots, to heartfelt human conflict, to spiritual speculation, to technological transcendence. I have attempted to define these contrasting worlds through a mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds (musical, natural, and sometimes un-natural), of jagged rhythms and soaring lyricism, and of spicy harmonies and enveloping textures, all flowing together and moving forward through eight uninterrupted Scenes, bookended by contrasting Prologue and Epilogue.

The opera does evolve rather quickly–we imagined the pacing of a movie, without intermission–and has few traditional “numbers,” although it is packed with melodies short and long, many of which twist and turn and re-turn as each character explores his or her possibilities and makes his or her choices.

And although the many artistic and technical layers of Death and the Powers can perhaps best be experienced over time and through multiple encounters, we hope that much of the beauty and–well–power of the opera will speak to audiences the very first time as well.