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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto: Tod Machover And His ‘Robot Opera’

by Jerome Weeks 11 Feb 2014 8:43 AM

Tod Machover doesn’t just compose operas; he invents the technology to perform them. The Dallas Opera presents his Death and the Powers, an opera set in the future when a man downloads himself into a computer system, complete with robots. Rigoletto was never like this.


death full screen2The Dallas Opera presents Death and the Powers this week, a radically unusual opera. It’s set in the future, with robots, in part, telling the story of a man who achieves digital immortality.  The opera’s composer Tod Machover teaches at the MIT Media Lab — in fact, he’s part of the ‘Opera of the Future’ group — and is known for inventing new musical instruments. KERA’s Jerome Weeks had a conversation with Machover about what’s been dubbed his “robot opera.”

  • NPR story on the MIT Media Lab and Death and the Powers
  • Dallas Morning News story
  • KERA radio story:

  • Online story:

Weeks: Why a robot opera: What is it and why?

Machover: C’mon, everybody wants to do a robot opera! No, there are robots on stage as characters, but in a way, the entire set is a robot because it’s a story about a man, named Simon Powers, who’s in his late sixties, and is rich, successful, powerful. And he’s obsessed with living forever, so he uses his power and his money and his smarts basically to download himself into his environment. And so Simon Powers, the character, in the first scene is about to turn on the system so he can disappear. And the stage little by little does come alive so you’re seeing his furniture and the walls of his room and the actual robots he built representing him even though he is not there. So it is a robot opera but even for a robot opera, it’s an unusual one.

Weeks: When one hears the term robot opera, one thinks of robots singing. Do they?

Machover: The robots sing at the beginning and at the end because the entire story is like a play which has been left on earth sometime in the future when there are no human beings left.  And the play is a way for the robots to understand what being human is because there are no people around anymore.

Weeks: You can’t do something like this with whatever you can find on the shelf at the local Apple store. In addition to the robots, what did you invent to tell this story?

powers3editThe robots in rehearsal on stage. Photo credit: Jerome Weeks

Machover:  Because Simons Powers is offstage for so much of the opera, we invented a technique. He goes down into the orchestra pit, and we built him a little studio, kind of like this recording studio where we are in now, and of course he sings, we measure his voice, but we also measure his muscle tension, his heartbeat, we measure his breathing, his facial expressions. And we analyze all this to give a sense of his emotion at any moment. And this information goes back onto the stage to control where the sounds are and sometimes how the robots move. These walls of his room, these are also big robots, they move around and they’re choreographed and they have light and images on them. And all of this is controlled by his behavior, so this system of measuring a performer so you literally get his pulse and that pulse is then translated into what you see on stage, that also we had to do from scratch.

Weeks: But why not create just an opera? Why, on top of that, do you go through inventing all these new mechanisms?

Machover: My mom’s a pianist and my dad was one of the people who started the field of computer graphics, so I kinda grew up with music and technology. My creative ideas often come together, a musical idea and then the realization that maybe I can’t get exactly that sound or exactly that feeling with what I can get off the shelf. And so often when I think of an idea I also think of some new way of producing it.

Weeks: You’ve composed operas before this, like Valis, often called the first sci-f opera. But why opera at all – for such futuristic ideas?

Machover: We often think of opera as something very traditional and opulent, and it often is. But because it’s the art form that always will take whatever the new ideas of the day are, whatever new medium is available, whatever technology’s available, ever since the Baroque period, and finds a new way to put those elements together, it’s actually a form that makes it possible to think differently. I think it’s a very dynamic form these days.