'Death and the Powers': There's an app for that . . . opera

"Death and the Powers" will be simulcast from Dallas Sunday at the Franklin Institute; operagoers can get in on the action with an app.
"Death and the Powers" will be simulcast from Dallas Sunday at the Franklin Institute; operagoers can get in on the action with an app. (JONATHAN WILLIAMS)
Posted: February 17, 2014

'Without my death, who will I be?"

That central existential question in the futuristic Tod Machover opera Death and the Powers threatens to reverse the usual leading-soprano dilemma: Instead of preparing to die, she decides she should live, possibly forever, in an alternative realm.

And since the medium is its message, this acclaimed 2011 opera about billionaire Simon Powers, who downloads his essence into his possessions, arrives in Philadelphia in the apotheosis of virtuality. Death and the Powers will be seen in a 3 p.m. Sunday simulcast at the Franklin Institute - with a twist: Local audiences will have apps, created at the MIT Media Lab, allowing their smartphones to access extra video content and to influence certain elements of the performance as it originates in Dallas' Winspear Opera House.

"We usually live dangerously," said composer Machover, who has relentlessly defined the technological cutting edge in classical music since joining the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985. Besides creating new-tech instruments (including a "hypercello" for Yo-Yo Ma), Machover has written operas about neurological functions ( The Brain Opera) as well as more traditional works such as Resurrection (based on Tolstoy).

Death and the Powers has a libretto by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky that is among his most fully realized work - it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012 - and became the talk of the opera world after its first U.S. performances in Boston and Chicago in 2011. Opera scouts, including Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny and Opera Philadelphia's David Devan, were at the Chicago performances. Cerny is currently remounting the opera; Devan is presenting the local simulcast.

"My thinking is that this is such a terrific work with enough unique technical complexity that we should get it out to as many different markets as possible," Cerny said. Requirements: 10 cameras, three satellites, $250,000.

"This time we won't be asking you to turn off your mobile devices before the curtain rises," said Devan. "Let's tinker with this technology together and get a glimpse at the future of opera."

The so-called Powers Live app is more than a gimmick, but it solves the dramatic problem of having billionaire industrialist Powers be invisible for much of the opera. In previous presentations, his presence has been heard and felt following his transmogrification. At one point, he tries to persuade his daughter to join him in his downloaded netherworld.

Director Diane Paulus considered putting Powers in a bubble in one corner of the stage. Ultimately in the Boston production, sensors were placed on baritone James Maddalena, who played Powers, so the scenery into which he's downloaded could seem to breathe and shimmer with him. This time, the app will allow simulcast audiences to read the thoughts of the character (now played by Robert Orth) and see the world from his perspective.

And what will the world look like? "Fuzzy - and really beautiful, with more intercutting and cross-fading. That's literally the filter of Simon's consciousness," said Machover, talking over a hopelessly rudimentary telephone.

Memory will intermingle with the present. "At one point, he's saying, 'I don't care about solving world hunger. I've tried that and I'm done. I care about German poetry now.' And then you might see a glimpse of that memory in his mind. The nice thing is that we can make it a very clear, beautiful, and insightful memory," Machover said. "It's an interesting visual language that will be another set of layers."

Paulus wasn't involved in this newest wrinkle, but it has her emphatic blessing. Past technological innovations in the theater have usually been directed at creating cinematic effects. She wanted something more engaging. "All along in the creative discussions with Tod, we were yearning for a way . . . to make technology contribute to the live-moment experience."

Already, the opera has anything but the kind of ornate environment that traditional operagoers are used to. The music isn't particularly futuristic and will probably pose no problem to anybody well versed in Stravinsky. But the look of the production is full of emotionally cool lighting patterns that do much of the work of traditional scenery, though much more abstractly.

Also, the opera is told as a flashback from a future age, and not by human beings but by robots - not the Star Wars sort but flashing triangles who look back at "the organic age" and talk about being rewarded for laudable acts with "human rights credits." Thus, another view offered by the "Powers Live" app is a robot's-eye view.

But that's not the end of it: The chandelier in the Dallas opera house, which has the ability to change colors, will glow according to input requested from plugged-in members of the remote audience. "People aren't going to make the chandelier crash onto the audience's head," Machover said. "But there's going to be enough of a change that you can feel that you're being part of it."

Why, one must ask, isn't it enough for him to just write an opera? "I guess it's in the genes," he says. "It's literally part of my imagination."


The "Death and the Powers" simulcast on Sunday is free, though tickets are recommended and available at www.operaphila.org. Tickets don't include Franklin Institute admission. The Powers Live app will be available starting at 2:15 p.m., composer Tod Machover will give a pre-opera talk at 2:25, and the simulcast begins at 3.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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