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Dallas Opera Wins NEA Grant to Stage a 'Robot Opera,' Other Grants Include JFK Work from the DSO

by Jerome Weeks 27 Nov 2012 9:16 AM

A Bill Gates-like billionaire downloads his life into a computer system. Robots re-enact the lives of their human creators, long dead. The Dallas Opera will present Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers: in 2014. Watch VIDEOS of Machover and learn about the other North Texas grants.


Sara Heaton and Hal Cazalet in Death and the Powers. Photo by Paula Aguilera

The National Endowment for the Arts announced eight grants today to North Texas arts groups, including  the Dallas Opera, which will receive $30,000 to help it present Tod Machover’s opera, Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. It will be performed at the Winspear Opera House Feb. 12-16, 2014 in what will be the work’s Southwest premiere.

Other North Texas grants include $70,000 to the Dallas Theater Center for hip-hop artist Will Power’s musical production of Stagger Lee, $35,000 to Documentary Arts to upgrade its Masters of Traditional Arts kiosks with touch screens, $25,000 to the Dallas Symphony to commission a new work marking the 50th anniverary of the JFK assassination, $20,000 to the Dallas Black Dance Theatre to present a new work, Calaveras, $20,000 to the Van Cliburn Foundation to commission a new solo piano piece by Christopher Theofanidis plus performances by the Brentano String Quartet, $17,500 to the Fort Worth Opera for its upcoming production of Glory Denied and $10,000 to Kitchen  Dog Theatre for its New Works Festival.

The radically innovative production of Death and the Powers, which debuted at the Monaco Opera in Monte Carlo in 2010, was written by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and composed by Machover, a professor of music at the MIT Media Lab and a pioneer in new music technology.  Death and the Powers concerns a high-tech billionaire named Simon Powers who tries to achieve immortality by downloading his life and memories into the computer system that runs his house.

Eventually, Machover explains, “Simon Powers, the character, leaves the stage after the first scene, and the stage little by little does come alive. So it is a kind of robot opera, but you’re seeing his furniture, and the walls of his room and the actual robots he built representing him even though he’s not there. So it is a robot opera, but even for a robot opera, it’s an unusual one.”

To make matters more mind-bending: The opera takes place in the distant future, after humans have disappeared. It’s the robots who are performing this piece as a ritual to recall what their human inventors were like and to try to learn from them what it means to be human.

And yes, the robots — devised specifically for this opera and looking like the ultimate Apple upgrade — do sing. They also dance.

The technology behind the entire stage set — including a musical chandelier, wall-sized video monitors and nine mobile robot servants — was developed for this show. The mix of revolutionary technology, staging and music is characteristic of the work of Machover, who was a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music. His Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab has been a hotbed of electronic innovation. A couple of Machover’s students, for instance, were the brains behind the music video games, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, while Machover is known in new music circles for his invention of “hyperinstruments” for such performers as Yo-Yo Ma.


Death and the Powers was subsequently performed in Boston and Chicago last year. The Dallas Opera production will be conducted by Nicole Paiement, who conducted the DO’s production of The Lighthouse last season. Starring as Simon Powers will be Robert Orth, who sang in The Lighthouse, played Stubbs in the DO’s world premiere production of Moby-Dick.  He also sang the role of LBJ in the world premiere of  Steven Stucky and Gene Scheer’s August 4, 1964 with the Dallas Symphony.

Machover was in Dallas in September for a public discussion of his work as part of the DO’s  ‘Conversations with Keith’ series. In the videos below, he talks about the generation of Death and the Powers (after a brief chat about the symphony he’s composing with the entire city of Toronto). And in the second interview, soprano Sara Heaton, who played Powers’ daughter Miranda, talks about what it’s like singing and dancing with robots. The video concludes with the opera’s finale.