Wednesday evening marked the opening night of Tod Machover’s innovative, new (2010 premiere), opera, Death and the Powers. Here, “innovative” is certainly not a buzzword. Combining on-stage robots, dazzling light-wall panels, the famous Winspear ceiling chandelier, and humans, to tell a story of a man who has downloaded his being into a computer (The System) in order to avoid death, is definitely not the operatic or “classical music” norm.
Machover keeps audiences on their toes throughout the work, and you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. The bookends of the Prologue and Epilogue that feature the singing robots come across as comical, while the opera that happens between is anything but, and just as you’re in a groove with the four main performers, the “delegation” from the Outside World comes in and not only throws you for a musical curve with the completely unexpected high tessitura of The United Way (Frank Kelley), but also with the out-of-nowhere storyline and dialogue. Part of the feeling that you’re on a roller coaster has to do with the fact that the story by Randy Weiner and Robert Pinsky seems to have many levels of depth surrounding the main plot-line, which is fantastic, except that those larger parts of the story aren’t really unfolded for the audience. It’s as if we’ve accidentally fast-forwarded to a few of the sections. The one plus to this approach is it can certainly leave you discussing the work afterwards in an attempt to figure out what it all means.
From a musical perspective, Death and the Powers is fantastic. Machover explores many different sounds throughout the work, from the avant-garde, electronic music in the Prologue and Epilogue to beautiful, soaring arias and duets during the “human” portion of the work. For those uneasy about modern music, have no fear, Machover’s music is highly operatic and an absolute joy to experience.
While the main character is Simon Powers — wonderfully performed by Robert Orth — the star of the show on Wednesday night was Joélle Harvey as Miranda. Her “Who? What? When? How? Light. Death. Alone. Alive. Live.” final aria was a moment to remember and the audience (myself included) couldn’t help but applaud as the robots rolled on for the Epilogue.
The end result was an enjoyable, thought-provoking opera that explored death, suffering, and what it means to be to be human; a feat accomplished through focusing on technology. This opera might already be a few years old, but it will be quite some time before there’s another opera that’s more “modern.”
In a fantastic collaboration with MIT, Sunday’s performance will be simulcast to venues around the globe. Download the “Death and the Powers” mobile app and find a venue near you!
- Friday, February 14 — 7:30pm
- Saturday, February 15 — 7:30pm
- Sunday, February 16 — 2:00pm