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DEATH AND THE POWERS: The Robots’ Opera by ARTalk

[by Ken Haggerty '11] An * exclusive sneak peak * of Prof. Machover's exciting new opera! Shhhh!!!

[by Ken Haggerty ’11]

Opera (Simon & Miranda)

Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera has stunning visuals and technology, but it is Prof. Machover’s haunting melodies that send a chill up your nerves. © Nicholas Wiltsie G (MIT Technique)

It is far too easy to be taken by the material—one of the many fitting themes of Prof. Tod Machover’s masterpiece Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera—but judging by MIT Technique’s and ARTalk’s sneak preview of the production, technology, quite literally, only serves as the mechanism by which the story is told. Like the OperaBots that introduce us to the story of Simon Powers, a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor who resolves to download himself into the System after mortality approaches, the technology is unfeeling and utterly unable to comprehend the sinews that make us human.

“What is this ‘death’? Is it a form waste?” one OperaBot asks.
“Or is it a form of entropy? Of data rearranged?” another OperaBot asks.
“How can I perceive what I cannot feel?”

— Lines from Death and the Powers (Libretto available here)

And yet, it’s the technology which completes the metamorphosis from beautiful art to beautiful production. Opera has a rich history of elaborate, extravagant, and sometimes downright gaudy sets, but the compositional simplicity of Machover’s set is brilliant without doubt. Three triangular “bookcases,” at once industrial, contemporary, and abstract (anything but natural in feel) loom over the drama, while OperaBots attend to the Powers like robots in a Japanese hospital. And then there is the chandelier, in all of its hypar glory, which I had for many years passed by in the Media Lab and wondered exactly how it would be integrated into the Opera. Good design gives you everything you need and nothing that you don’t, and likewise, the use of technology in Death and the Powers strikes that perfect balance of providing the phantasmagoric visual splendor of the opera but not distracting from the story, the themes, or most of all…

The voice! My goodness, can these people sing! Although I have been fortunate to have seen previous operas, including Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with my family and La Bohème at the Boston Opera House as part of FASAP, the freshman advising program in the arts, I have not been so moved to the core as I was last night. Perhaps it was the circumstances of how I, along with two of my photographers from Technique, managed to get a sneak preview of a sold-out opera ten years in the making; but it was undoubtedly the human voice, especially the melliferous Evvy Powers (played by Emily Albrink, who joins the cast along with Sara Heaton as Miranda), which proves that the fun but Auto-Tuned crap that calls itself Ke$ha could never compare to true talent.

Slideshow of Nick, Carolina, and my adventure getting to Death and the Powers. (Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR)

So how did we manage to get so lucky?
The answer: Email. Or rather, email-ing.

I am the Managing Editor of Technique, the yearbook of MIT, and knowing that the premier of Death and the Powers was quickly approaching, I resolved last Friday to email Tod Machover directly to see if there was any way we could photograph it. Tod and I had met at least once my freshman year when I was a part of the Media Lab’s Freshman-Year Program, and I think I had attended a few meetings with him when I was Coordinator for ARTalk and part of the Arts Communication Council at MIT. Nevertheless, I fully expected that, with the show coming up, Tod would be utterly flooded with emails and unable to respond to our request.

Exactly 1.5hrs later: “Great to hear from you, and I love the idea of having a yearbook photographer at the dress rehearsal.”
And this is why MIT is absolutely incredible.

I even received permission to use one or two photos from the dress rehearsal for this blog! The incredible photo at the beginning of this blog was taken by Nicholas Wiltsie, Technique’s Technology Manager, Orders Tsar, and all-around most awesome member. Nick was an undergrad here is course 2 (mechanical engineering) and is now a graduate student here pursuing his Master’s, also in course 2. The fantastic photo at the end of this blog was taken by Carolina Kaelin ’14, one of our newest members who jumped at the opportunity to photograph the show.

The Flickr slideshow above shows our journey from MIT, missing the 1 Bus, then getting stuck on the T between Hynes and Copley for ten minutes, and finally arriving at Emerson College’s stunning Cutler Majestic Theater, right in the heart of Boston’s theater district and where the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T. for short) is producing the opera.

We waited patiently until finally the doors opened (an hour and a half late…I swear they do this to make us more excited) and finally made our way onto the mezzanine level where everyone would sit for the dress rehearsal. I took a seat at the dead center (#106) while Nick set up on the left corner and Carolina set up on the right corner. But as the show was about to start…

A woman from A.R.T. approaches Carolina! I rush over, and we speak in the hallway to clarify permissions regarding photo usage. A few minutes later, I get her email address, send her email, and get back into the theater just in time to see Simon Powers having a stroke.

Some time later (15 minutes?), I am approached again. This time the woman, whispering, asks us if we would like to go down and take photographs on the orchestra level. The photographers they had asked to come were missing.

So of course, we grabbed our gear and made our way down to the first floor. We were so excited that we left our jackets on the mezzanine.

Needless to say, the experience was mindblowing, and we are all incredibly fortunate and lucky, not only to attend MIT but to have ridiculously awesome and friendly professors like Tod. Whomever thinks MIT is Hell obviously isn’t doing it right.

And so I leave you with a particularly poignant line, uttered by Simon Powers from the depths of the System, to his wife Evvy.


“Forever doesn’t matter.
Enough isn’t good enough.
What matters is more.

Forever is not the point.”

Death and the Powers, Scene 4 (Libretto available here)

Opera (Tod, Curtain Call)

From L to R: James Maddalena (Simon Powers), Tod Machover (Composer & Creator), and Sara Heaton (Miranda Powers) practice their curtain call for what will undoubtedly be a very long ovation come Friday. © Carolina Kaelin ’14 (MIT Technique)


By Tod Machover (Opera of the Future Group, MIT Media Lab)
Libretto by Robert Pinsky (Boston University)
Premiering this Friday, March 18, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater, in Boston, MA.
World premiere in October 2010 in Monaco

BOSTON: March 18, 20, 22, 25 (2011) by The American Repertory Theater, at the Cutler Majestic Theater — Buy tickets
CHICAGO: April 2, 6, 8, 10 (2011) by Chicago Opera Theater, at the Harris Theater – Buy tickets

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