COT: Death and the Powers - {Part 2}

I admit it; I’m obsessed. Last night, I went to the “behind-the-technology” lecture with composer Tod Machover about his opera Death and the Powers. Though I had seen the opera and read about the technology behind it, it was fascinating seeing it in action.

If there is a flaw in Death, it’s that it’s too much to take in in one sitting. Even just geeking out on tech, it’s impossible to appreciate how complicated it is. Machover said they wanted to keep technology out of the way, to merely use it as a tool to tell the story. They succeeded: almost to a flaw.

Let’s start with the robots. It was impossible in the performance to tell how the robots were controlled. Were they autonomous or simply high-tech puppets? Does it really matter? Either way it’s pretty amazing. As best as I can tell, the puppets were primarily controlled by puppeteers in the rafters with Xbox 360 controllers. And yet, they seem pretty autonomous and can respond to voice commands. 
It’s akin to seeing an “electroacoustic” or “computer music” performance. You hear these amazing things but don’t know how they’re doing it; in stark contrast to acoustic music or analog puppeteering. During the performance, though, it’s easy to forget these things, and the robots seem like part of the set and part of the cast – at the same time.

Disembodied performance. After the first scene of the opera, the lead singer, James Maddalena, disappears from view, though his voice and even his image reappear throughout the rest of the show. The audience can’t tell where it’s coming from: is it prerecorded? Boring. Is it something unimaginably high-tech? Awesome.
It turns out it’s the latter. Maddalena leaves the stage to enter a sound-proof booth in the orchestra pit. He is hooked up to sensors to measure his breathing, arm movements (using accelerometers), and muscle tensions, all of which are transmitted to the video screens on stage, such that it becomes an extension of his performance. Think bio-suit. Think again of the Wizard of Oz.
They had a vision and invented myriad new technology. Any couple pieces of which could transform opera and performance in general. And will do so in years to come. With all of them woven together, it just takes a while to parse it out. Which is what I’ve been doing ever since Saturday–finally making some headway.
Part 1 of the review.

Death and the Powers at Chicago Opera Theater 
April 6, 8 at 7:30pm
April 10 at 3pm

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