Sci-fi opera ‘Death and the Powers’ is doing things differently … with robots

BY Anne Davenport  February 10, 2014 at 6:59 PM EST


Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of The Dallas Opera, brings together the business and artistic side of a production. He recently sat down with Jeffrey Brown to talk about what “Death and the Powers” means for the future of opera.

“Death and the Powers” has been called the future of the opera. Composed by Tod Machover and developed at the MIT Media Lab, this science fiction opera fills the stage with robots alongside actors and combines computers with the sounds of the orchestra. But, as a simulcast, it’s also exploring the world of audience interaction through technology.

Enter Keith Cerny, the general director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. When Cerny saw a performance of “Death and the Powers” for the first time, he knew within the first five minutes that he wanted to bring it to Dallas.

“It’s really a genre-stretching piece in that it has not only great opera singing and interesting orchestral writing, but also all this technology — the robots, the light displays, the musical chandelier.”

Dallas will host the opera that will be simulcast to as many as 10 other cities in the U.S. and abroad, on Feb. 16.



Ben Bloomberg has preparing the “Death and the Powers” opera audio and other systems for its first international 10-city simulcast. He presents a simulation of interactive technology during the simulcast.

Ben Bloomberg, a second year Masters student at MIT, has been working on audio and other systems for the “Death and the Powers” opera and its first international simulcast. He concedes there is much that could go wrong with such a complex production, but confidently says he doubts it will. But that’s the kind of challenge he embraces: “That’s my favorite part. That’s one reason I love doing live productions because everything happens in the moment and we have to make sure everything works.”



A post-doctoral associate in the Opera and the Future Group, Peter Torpey been working on “Death and the Powers” since 2007.

Peter Torpey, a post-doctoral associate in the Opera of the Future Group, has been working on “Death and the Powers” in its various incarnations since 2007. He says the scope of the project is pretty mind-boggling in and of itself: “I couldn’t even begin to count the hours that go into making this. There are so many systems that get designed, the testing of putting everything back together. We’re adding a whole new layer of technology for this simulcast experience.”



Tod Machover, creator of “Death and the Powers,” explores the interaction of music and technology.

Tod Machover’s “Vocal Vibrations” combines a multi-layered, surround-sound vocal with interactive, meditative singing to explore new ways that the human voice can influence mental and physical health. The project runs in Paris through the summer and will move to Cambridge, Mass., in the fall. Machover explained how the experience works and why more exploration of music’s effects is needed: “Music may be one of the activities that uses more parts of our brain. You can look at all the textbooks and you won’t find a single good explanation about why music exists in every culture. Some people think that one of the purposes of music was a kind of exercise to get all the parts of our brain active and perhaps to synchronize them and to get them to communicate, so powerful things happen when we listen to music and it’s very little understood.”

Watch chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s broadcast report on the “Death and the Powers.”