Jim Sullivan Ink
Jim Sullivan
March 22, 2011

Would it be hyperbolic to suggest you’ve never see anything quite like this? I don’t think so. Here’s the deal: Simon Powers is the central character of Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” up at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Tuesday March 22 & Friday March 25. Like many of us, Powers isn’t too crazy about dying. But Powers, in his 60s and facing the final (or is it?) curtain would like to keep on going in some manner. So this inventor/businessman with both money and known builds the “System” – a complex robotic world in which he can download himself so that his voice and visions continue after the corporeal Powers doesn’t. Powers, played by opera great James Maddalena, exits early in the production and soon becomes a disembodied off-stage presence. He communicates with his family and colleagues through a network of mobile robots, movable LED-flashing walls and a gigantic, musical chandelier.

I did an interview with Machover, which is up now at www.timeoutboston.com. Machover is quite a talker and here are some of his thoughts that didn’t make that cut.

Machover had the germ of this idea ten years ago. He developed it with former Poet Laureate, librettist Robert Pinsky, A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus and her husband, writer Randy Weiner. Alex MacDowell, who did production design for “Minority Report,” constructed the dazzling set. Gil Rose conducts the 15-piece Boston Modern Opera Project.

It debuted last September in Monte Carlo. (Hefty financial support for the opera was provided by the Futurum Association in Monaco.)

Machover, 57, is the head of MIT’s Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group. A cellist, Machover has written scads of songs and four previous operas. And as an inventor, he developed the technology behind a couple little things called Rock Band and Guitar Hero

Did you ever have a point of worrying this was too difficult to translate to an audience?
This world - the story, the words, the look – was all done before very much music was written. To be honest, I was petrified. I looked at this and said, “I really believe in this, but first of all, this is a crazy story about a guy who disappears and the stage has to come alive and we have to make these characters so that people care about them. And some of the ideas are abstract.” It’s got to come alive – yes through the set, yes through the words - but it’s an opera so it has to come alive through the music. Am I going to find the right music to do this?

You’ve got a lot of robots and a lot technology that must be synched up to work right. Any thoughts about that considering, oh, “Spider-Man” and the troubles on Broadway?
It’s a live show. Unlike “Spider-man,” well, first of all this has been working. I think people are going to “Spider’man” partly because somebody could fall. This show in many ways, we wanted to create this paradox, which is we don’t want people to go thinking about the technology, you want it to feel the show is going to work and these are objects we accept. On the other hand, it’s important that it’s a live show. It’s not a movie, it’s not fake, these are real robots and they might break. And like live performers, they forget a word or miss a note and unless you’re in the show you don’t really know but all the technological infrastructure is the same. It’s the real thing and every night it’s really well engineered but there’s always something that isn’t quite right.

Hey if these robots go bad, will they kill the audience?
Well I think the people who really afraid are the poor musicians in the orchestra pit. They’re good friends, but they’re the ones that look at me and say, “Could you put a net over the orchestra pit?” They won’t, but if they went bad, they could go over the lip of the stage into the orchestra pit but they’d get stopped there rather than go into audience. They’d be caught by the musicians or on the musicians.

You worked with some pretty heavy hitters here: A.R.T. director Diane Paulus, her husband, writer Randy Weiner, Robert Pinsky, Alex MacDowell. How did it work, ego-wise?
Absolutely, without doubt I can say it was a spectacularly wonderful collaboration. Incredibly fun, unequivocably great. Like a lot of things I do at the Media Lab, it’s magical to me to have people like that with graduate students just starting out in the profession, undergraduates 18 years old and fresh. I like to create environments not just from different fields, but different experience levels, backgrounds and ages, they all contribute as equals. That said, it was also the most complicated project I’ve done and I’ve done a lot of crazy ones. From the beginning, thinking of a subject as difficult, how do you make a story that expresses some of these ideas – that is not only about this technological extension but has the technology as part of the actors and the story? How do you imagine these things together. We all worked on the story together, and at the point we brought in Alex McDowell, the Hollywood production designer, in it was because we were getting to a point in the story where we realized it wasn’t a set design with robots and a chandalier and walls, these objects were, as we hoped, really telling the story and it even though they didn’t have words, so we knew we needed the designer in the middle of the creative team from fairly early on. I realized also it wasn’t going to be a theatrical designer or a Broadway designer. So I asked around and found Alex. He had just finished “Minority Report” with Spielberg and we met and got along. In terms of personalities and egos, we all really blended and got along very well. In terms of talking about this stuff trading ideas and making decisions, we had to invent a language along the way to do that and it was not simple.

I sometimes think the reason I decided to go into composing – I was a cellist and I liked sports – the reason I chose composing at the end of high school into college was I loved and still do love being able to lock myself in my studio, take the phone off the hook and imagine a piece from beginning to end really without having to describe it to anybody. Which is the great thing about music – you don’t have to put it into words. You make this magical world and then share it with somebody when it’s done. I still do that sometimes. We live in an 18th century farm in Waltham and it feels millions of miles away from everywhere, but a lot of my projects are these big collaborations and projects like this I have to talk about my intuitions and sounds well before I knew what the hell I was talking about and that’s a very uncomfortable place to be. You have to bring people together who trust each other and who are not embarrassed by sticking their necks out and talking about something both very personal and also very unformed. I think it did work pretty well.

In my business, we’re taught there are no stupid questions.
That’s right. And the other side of that is there are no stupid answers. So, even if what you say now you’re going to revise later on, give it your best shot now.

I’m guessing in viewing this you can float around and focus on the story, the technology, the music, the staging and let your mind drift through all the elements.
I think that’s a good point. I do think whether you’re consciously paying attention or not, who cares that you call it an opera? That word doesn’t mean anything. I have conceived of it where the continuity, where you care about the characters, even if it’s in the subconscious it’s the music that’s supposed to take you there. Somehow you’re meant to feel. If you totally zone out of the music, it’s probably not the greatest thing. But I do think you can concentrate on different levels. One thing different from Monaco. When we went into the project [last year] the whole look is so integrated, we spent so much time on the set and choreography and the lighting, we didn’t want to show the words. But in opera these days whether its Opera Boston or the Metropolitan Opera they almost always have supertitles, giant words projected over a screen or on little screens on the side, at the Metropolitan in New York, they actually have it on the back of the seat in front of you. We didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want another level of watching the words while you’re watching the rest. But as it happened, we got the balances right. You definitely can understand the words. It’s better than a Broadway show. You can hear the words, but we came away from Monaco thinking the words are so beautiful and so interesting and actually pretty dense we decided we are going to show them. So we are going to have super titles flat panel screens on either side of the stage, which means there will be another level, your eyes can wander subliminally so you can take in the words if you want to. It’s not right in your face. People listen to things in all different ways and who knows where their concentration goes. Part of our job as artists, I think one of things that works best about this show is that the elements bond together to make something more than the sum of the parts. There’s something about the way the story and the visuals and these machines and these actors and the music, they’re meant to be together. When you see something this complex it absolutely unified, it’s kind of exhilarating. There’s nothing else exactly like it. We hope people’s minds don’t wander too much.