TOPICS > Arts

Singing robots show humanity of technology in opera of the future

February 10, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
Composer, computer scientist and futurist Tod Machover has joined the power of technology with one of the great classical art forms. In "Death and the Powers," opera robots take the stage to sing about the search for immortality and how our humanity is transformed by tech. Jeffrey Brown reports on the preparations taking place at the MIT Media Lab for an upcoming interactive performance.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A classical art form meets cutting-edge technology, an opera that will be simulcast, where viewers around the globe can interact with the performance this Sunday.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

MAN: Wow. They remember their parts.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the future there will be robots. But there will also be opera, the power of technology joined to the human imagination.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: That, at least, is one message from the opera “Death and the Power” by composer, computer scientist, and futurist Tod Machover.

TOD MACHOVER, “Death and the Power”: A lot of my work has been about humanizing technology and making technology, especially in music, be an extension of human gesture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Machover’s opera tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful businessman seeking immortality through technology by downloading his mind and spirit into a computer program called the System.

Now, stay with us here, because his essence becomes incorporated into physical objects. Robots line up on stage, representing each of the main characters of the show. During the prologue and epilogue, they also serve as a kind of Greek chorus. They’re all that is left on planet Earth. Once every year, they gather to remember and tell the story of Simon Powers, even though they have no real knowledge of human emotion.

They are moved about by iPads and remote controls using cutting-edge software such as a position tracking system and 3-D visualization.

With a libretto by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, it’s a new twist on old-age life-and-death questions, and newer ones about the role of technology.

TOD MACHOVER: The great thing about technology is that it allows us to be more human, to extend what we really want to express and what we really want to do, and hopefully to connect to people more deeply.

Oh my God. That’s unbelievable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Tod Machover’s professional home is the opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab, where he and his team created the software that launched the popular “Guitar Hero” video game. He and his current team of graduate students play to their hearts’ content, exploring sounds, inventing new instruments.

During our visit, the team was working on its latest challenge. “Death and the Powers,” which had its premier in 2010 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is now being presented at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. This time, it includes a simulcast in 10 cities around the world, and, this being the Media Lab, not just any simulcast, but a new kind of experience in itself, with interactive features that allow remote viewers to take in the opera from a variety of viewpoints, including from inside the robots, to impart what it’s like from Simon’s point of view within the system.

MAN: Actually, it kind of looks like a robot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sensors’ control to Powers will translate his voice, breath and physical gestures to the entire set, including a computer- controlled chandelier, as he tries to entice his loved ones to join him in the system.

Peter Torpey, a postdoctoral associate, was test-driving some of the programs.

PETER TORPEY, MIT media lab: We are taking that technique of translating the singer’s performance, his off-stage performance, and affecting everything that the remote audiences see, so we can put that in their hands with mobile devices and affect the view that they have of the performance in Dallas.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is one performance where you are actually asked to turn your smartphone on. An app used by remote audiences will flash images that occupy the mind of the main character and buzz participants during key moments.

Audiences in Dallas will have other ways to experiment with how music is experienced. Doctoral student Elly Jessop showed us the Sensor Chair that will be installed in the opera house lobby, attempting to measure expressivity.

ELLY JESSOP, MIT media lab: We have always been interested in not just developing technologies for virtuosos, for opera singers, for professional cellists kind of thing, but saying, once you know, what does it mean to be expressive? How do you track that? How do you capture that? How do we take that and make a form that anybody can experience?

JEFFREY BROWN: So from 21st century lab to 18th century barn?

TOD MACHOVER: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re both part of your life?

TOD MACHOVER: They’re both pretty deeply part of my life, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ten years ago, Tod Machover converted an old barn in suburban Boston into a studio where he works on his compositions, the old wood framing the computer screens and loudspeakers.

He’s currently composing a symphony for Perth, Australia, or perhaps better to say with Perth. This is the third in a series of collaborative city symphonies, in which the public uses online tools to record sounds that are incorporated into a musical portrait of the city.

He played us a bit of the work in progress, his cello accompanied by computer. He’s also now working on a new collaboration called “Vocal Vibrations” with several scientists and a Buddhist monk. It explores the connection between the human voice, through its vibrations, and one’s mental and physical health.

TOD MACHOVER: How can music help with depression, with changing mood? How can we help people express themselves, maybe somebody who has physical limitations, like someone with cerebral palsy who can’t speak? Is there a way that I can build and instrument so that people can speak through music?

JEFFREY BROWN: Questions for the future.

In the meantime, with a performance coming up, it was the health of what they call the Operabots that was uppermost for Machover and his team. At a rehearsal in a church near the lab, Bob Hsiung, known as Robot Bob, said that the machines, which are tightly choreographed, were showing some of their personality quirks.

BOB HSIUNG, MIT media lab: There’s a couple that are troublesome that we know of. Like, there’s Q, which tends to jitter, and we don’t really know why. He’s — maybe he’s just nervous.

JEFFREY BROWN: He will get over it, no doubt, and this opera of the future will go on.