I saw it again. Wednesday night, sitting two rows in front of the composer, I got to see Death and the Powers for a second time and, again, thoroughly enjoyed it. For me, it’s the perfect synthesis of form and content: an imaginative yet perfectly plausible story told in such a way that the production tells the story as much as the characters. It may involve copious amounts of technology, but it’s never gratuitous.
Between the two performances, I stumbled on this article in Time
, which predicts that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will surpass Human Intelligence by 2045. [Open it in another tab and you’ll have brain fodder for days.] This is based on some number crunching by MIT alum Ray Kurzweil – a name musicians mostly associate with synthesizers – who has found that computing power doubles every two years: an exponential curve. [Meanwhile, it seems like human intelligence progresses linearly in fits and starts with periods of regression.]
The point at which the AI curve crosses with the human curve is called the Singularity, for past it, nothing is certain. Just like the other singularity at the beginning of time, we are certain of its existence but unclear about what it means.
As with books like Blade Runner and movies like I, Robot, science-fiction help us conceptualize the future and deal with its potential ramifications before it blows up in our face like an unthrown grenade.
After seeing it the first time, reading about it, seeing a behind-the-technology demonstration, I wanted to see it again, to experience it again. Even compared to books and movies, opera is a more all-encompassing experience, allowing and requiring you to immerse yourself in these strange new concepts and watching as the very human characters struggle with the ramifications.
Though it begins and ends with robots singing*, it’s ultimately a human drama – one possible final human drama before humanity ceases to be as we know it. [The phrase “ceases to be” can terrify, but be sure to finish with “as we know it,” which could mean anything. The opera leaves our specific fate uncertain.]
The human drama plays out on the backs and in the throats of a cast perfectly suited for their roles. James Maddalena has an oaky stentorian voice and manner to portray Simon Powers’ wealth-infused narcissism. Emily Albrink effuses his “third and final wife” with an sensuality that is usually reserved for more intimate environs. Her bright and clear voice cuts through the sometimes cacophonous orchestra and electronics. Hal Cazalet is Nick, who helped create the System with Simon and who subsequently worships it like a zealous fanatic.
Without Simon’s daughter, Miranda, however, the opera would float away in a dirigible of abstraction. Played by Sara Heaton, Miranda starts off disconcerted and discontent but becomes steadily more impassioned as her white knuckles cling more tightly to her humanity and idealism. As Simon overcomes his physical body through science, Heaton finds transcendence in the opera’s final scenes as Miranda decides whether to follow her father into the Light or embrace the world of suffering.
As Science forces us to ask these bigger questions, the answers we need sound more like religion. And the Pope thought Galileo was a threat to his organization!
Like religious stories that wear very little with time, Death and the Powers is a durable parable and functions, in the robot’s future society, like Christian oratorios in ours. That is, it brings up more questions and doesn’t give easy answers. The future is coming, and with it comes a whole host of legal, ethical, and spiritual quandaries. To ignore them in the present is to be unprepared for them in the future.
* – Before the concert, I overheard the composer say he originally translated the robot’s prologue and epilogue into robot speak. To this, the librettist, one-time poet laureate Robert Pinsky, objected, and they reverted to standard English, sung by the performers off-stage. This struck me as odd the first time, slightly less odd the second. Maybe it falls into the uncanny valley: a unsettling disconnect between wholly human voices coming out of machines. Would it be cheesy to vocode it? [An example
.] Or put a gate
on it to make the pitches start and stop in a less-than-natural way?