Death and the Powers


Tod Machover Death and the Powers opera to a libretto by Robert Pinsky (from a story by Randy Weiner and Robert Pinsky). Directed February 2014 at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas by Andrew Eggert (with assistance from Allegra Libonati) using original stage directions of Diane Paulus. Stars baritone Robert Orth (Simon Walter Powers, an aging Jillionaire), mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley (Simon's Trophy Wife), soprano Joélle Harvey (Miranda, Simon's step-daughter), tenor Hal Casalet (Simon's protégé whom Simon rescued as a deformed infant foundling), counter-tenor Frank Kelley (The United Way, an important charity in the United States), baritone David Kravitz (The United Nations), and bass Tom McNichols (The Administration). Nicole Paiement conducts The Simon Walter Powers Post-Organic-Age Orchestra (a small ensemble of unidentified mechanical devices and electronic gadgets), the Miseries Chorus, and the Chorus of Operabots. Visionary technology provided by Opera of the Future Group and MIT Media Lab. Production designs by Alex McDowell; choreography by Karole Armitage; costumes by David C. Woolard; lighting by Donald Holder; sound design by Chris Full; wig and make-up by David Zimmerman; visual design and software systems by Peter Torpey; media design by Matt Checkowski, sound technology by Ben Bloomburg; robot mechanical design and technical development by Bob Hsiung; robotic control systems by Michael Miller; interaction design by Elena Jessop.

The credits in the previous paragraph relate to what the live audience in Dallas saw. In addition, there was a simulcast of the opera to some 10 locations in Dallas and other cities. It appears WFAA, a Dallas TV station, was responsible for the vision and sound simulcast transmissions and that the Blu-ray recording we review here is the same electronic document as the simulcast. TV credits: Jerry Cadigan was the Production Manager; Don Hazen was Facilities Manager; and Aaron Butler was Director with Assistant Director Rob Horning; cameras were operated by Chris Brock, Chris Cook, Bryan Walor, Chuck Crosswhite, Jim Conrad, Bill Sons, Bobby Hester, and DodeBigley.

It appears this title is published jointly by the Dallas Opera and the MIT Media Lab. There are no bonus extras, but the keepcase booklet has a lot of information including a detailed synopsis. Sung in English. There are subtitles in English only. The video is 1080i. Released 2015, the LPCM stereo sound was recorded at 48kHz/24-bits. The surround audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital recorded at 48kHz (no word-length given).

This title is currently available only from, a company that sells recordings from independent sources at reasonable prices. Grade: B+ (but "A+" if you like science-fiction, contemporary opera, poetry, or robots)

Background: This piercing-point opera is set in the not-too-distant future but after the demise of the human race and the end of the Organic Age. Operabots conduct a ceremony they are hard-wired to perform in which they recount the end of us: Simon Walter Powers, an American inventor and industrialist, became the richest man ever. Falling gravely ill from a stroke, he used his wealth to create The System, an artificial intelligence heaven. He passed into the System in a bid for immortality. But then things got out of control.

Time for screenshots. Below are Operabots, perhaps the only sentient beings left in the universe in the new Inorganic Age. They are gathered for their periodic In Memoriam celebration of the end of the era of fat and sugar. Death and the Powers is, I assert, the only opera in history in which the real stars are the set and the props, all of which were created by and now belong to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. (The MIT Media Lab is an important media think-tank and agar disk for advanced (read digital) communication science).

The Operabot below is puzzled. Death and the Powers (hereafter "D/a/t/P") touches on a huge number of science-fiction clichés and tropes in a clever and (I think) light-hearted libretto by poet Robert Pinsky. Some have suggested that D/a/t/P is an opera of ideas. I think that's asking too much of opera. I see this work as a brilliant send-up or satire of the science-fiction genre of literature. The libretto was published in Poetry (magazine) in 2010, and it's a fairly easy read. There were some cuts and changes in the original poem for the Dallas production. If you don't know the poem, it would be tricky to follow this live or in video. So the subtitles in English help a lot:

As the ceremony begins, four of the Operabots receive downloads of the minds and memories of the four main human characters. Below we see Simon Walter Powers (Robert Orth) relive the stroke which set him on his mission to gain immortality by inventing the System. (Simon is not a new character for us. He's the same grumpy, rascally, insanely-rich cuss we encounter in The Perfect American, where Walt Disney is sung by Christopher Reeves. And he's a clone of J.Howard Marshall II played by Alan Oke in Anna Nicole.

Now Nicholas is downloaded. He was grievously maimed and starving when Simon found and took pity on him. Simon later invented artificial limbs and other cures for Nick, who grew up being treated like the son Simon never had. Nick was fanatically loyal to Simon and followed him into the System:

Now Simon is close to death and headed for the System. Nick (Hal Casalet), part robot himself, is now in charge of saving Simon. Evvy, Simon's "third and final wife" (Patricia Risley) is saying good-by. In the shadows is Miranda (Joélle Harvey) who is dubious:

Word-play from poet Pinsky:

As a small diversion, here's the similar scene with Walt Disney in The Perfect American. But poor Disney came too early. He was trapped in a world of mechanical and chemical science. Powers comes later in an electronic world full of virtual virtues and digital delights:

D/a/t/P is an opera, so the big four line up like in Verdi for a quartet celebrating The System. For a moment the music sounds like a fugue from Bach after he hit his thumb with a hammer:

Next Pinsky hits us with a quotation from a poem about death (of the body anyway). If you can name the poet Simon is quoting, give yourself a Human Rights Status Credit. (The answer is at the end of this story.) There's more poetry coming later. Come to think of it, this is the only HDVD I know of that consists of an opera (about Operabots) with another opera (about Simon) inside. It's also the only HDVD I know of the libretto of which is a single poem performed in its entirety. And just as we have an opera in an opera, we also have here poetry (from other authors) included in a poem by Pinsky:

Simon dies. In the next screenshot, I focus on video content techniques used in Dallas, which are the most aggressive I've ever seen in a HDVD. The cameramen had the usual camera mounts. There were more cameras locked down. In addition, video shots were made through the eyes of the Operabots! And at least one cameraman was let loose to roam on foot wherever he could go without getting clobbered. 

Even though video resolution is good generally, especially considering the lack of light in many scenes, some of the film has an unsteady "battlefield news" quality. For example, the mobile camera could shoot from any where in any direction, and there are a number of shots (not well-focused) from the back-center of the stage past the protagonists on stage right into the audience! And there's at least one shot ruined by a unwanted head that pops up in the middle of the action. These irregularities in the images came, I think, from the addition of the local TV crews to make the simulcast. TV guys are trained to shoot, scoot, and then let the editor care of problems. These rough edges might be inconsistent with the otherwise highly-coordinated and polished style of the show. But I think they add a touch of realism and authenticity.

Below is an overhead shot showing the "Stage Chandelier" from the top. I put Chandelier in quotes because this device doesn't emit light. It's a kind of musical instrument that drops down from the stage fly and allows humans still in the Outerworld to communicate through touch and sound (an extension of the sense of touch) with those in the System :

After Simon dies, there is a period of uncertainty. But gradually the whole stage becomes Simon Walter Powers. Below we see Simon announce himself through the bookshelves as "SWP." Here's a quote from Tod Machover about the MIT Media Lab stagecraft: "From robots to visuals to sound-producing Hyperinstruments like the giant Stage Chandelier, more than 40 computers are required to run the production, all backed by extensive wired and wireless networks. These computers run a broad range of distributed control systems through which each component can share information with any other in order to create a synchronized and unified presence of Simon in The System."

It gets better. The Winspear Opera House has its own really giant Moody Foundation Chandelier for the entire auditorium. It can move up and down and can emit colors in patterns programed into a computer. So the MIT/Dallas Opea team incorporated the Moody Chandelier into the Opera! Below we see the Moody machine deliver a salutation from Simon:

Before long, Simon becomes downright chatty as he tries to operate the Outerworld economy from his sanctum: 

Now the final wife communicates with Simon thru the Stage Chandelier. Eventually she puts on some of those noise-cancelling earphones to stay yet closer "in touch."  Eventually she will perform osmosis into the System:

But soon Simon starts to become more distant from the Outerworld. His enterprises are crucial to both world supply and world demand---his absence is causing a breakdown of the economy everwhere. A Delegation (from the United Way, the United Nations, and The Administration) arrives to discuss the plight of the Outerworld with Simon. Miranda asks her stepfather if he will receive the Delegation, and he consents to two minutes:


The Administration (Tom McNichols) is irate:

More bad news comes in as civil order starts to collapse. Dallas is again in the news:

The Delegation demands answers about Simon's absence and the threatened demise of civilization. Simon appears on the walls mocking the Delegation. Quoting Machover again, "In a new technique called Disembodied Performance, gestural and physiological sensors, as well as voice analysis, capture the singer’s offstage performance, which is then used to generate in real time the visual representation of Simon Powers in the bookshelf displays and other aspects of the production."

The answer below (to Frank Kelly as The United Way) is more poetry. This is, you will all recognize, a quote from Klopstock as sung in Movement IV of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, often called the "Resurrection Symphony."

Here's the line in English being sung by Michelle DeYoung with the New York Philharmonic at a Remembrance and Renewal Concert on the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001:

But Simon hasn't just returned to God. He has become God. Let's see---the last time someone tried this, we got Lucifer back!


Meanwhile, poor Miranda is conflicted:

She gets a final appeal from her step-dad:


But she decides to stay put . . .:

Well, Machover and Pinsky have set themself up to write a sequel, called, I guess, Menschendämmerung. I haven't a clue what happened after Miranda went out to lead the world, and neither do the Operabots. (The big puzzle; Miranda elected not to enter The System. So how did The System get her mind and memory to download for the Ceremony?) The Bots are just as baffled as ever. Still, each Bot participating in the ceremony . . .:

The Bots come to their "Parade Rest!" position:

So, what are we to make of this astonishing production? My comments above give you a good idea about the libretto, the characters, and the spectacular mise-en-scene. Let's discuss the music a bit. The singing is what you would expect for a contemporary science-fiction opera with emphasis on acting and no melodies within sight or hearing. The orchestration is astonishingly dense, variable, and dissonant. It makes the score of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre sound like folk music. The closest things to Machover that we have in HDVD are probably some Boulez Notations and the Lera Aurebach score to the ballet The Little Mermaid. I tried to listen to the D/a/t/P music with no video, but I couldn't hack it. But, while you are watching the video, the music sounds appropriate for all the strange stuff happening in the opera house.

When I first read about D/a/t/P, I knew I had encountered "the powers" before. The powers appear in several books of the Christian New Testament. This is what gives the title for Pinsky's poem its special gravitas. See, for example, Matthew 24:29-31 stating, "immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken." Hendrikus Berkhof wrote a book of theology called Christ and the Powers in which he proposed (I understand) that certain powers that originally aided God had turned against Him. It would not suprise me to learn that Pinsky got his title directly from Berkhof. If so, then Pinsky would see high technology and artificial intelligence as "the powers."  Simon Walter would be viewed as a usurper trying to use the powers to replace God. This would in turn explain the end of the Organic Age as God's just punishment for human arrogance.

D/a/t/P has only had four production runs (Monaco 2010, Boston and Chicago 2011, and Dallas 2014). To mount it, you have to pay MIT a no-doubt handsome fee to hire their stage gear supported by an expensive company of high-tech operators. It's conceivable that D/a/t/P may never be performed again. Subject Blu-ray disc may become the only record of what this opera was about. If you have the slightest interest in this title, I suggest you buy a copy before it can go out of print and fall to the mercy of the pirates.

I do think D/a/t/P may be considered influential in the future even if it's too expensive to perform in revivals. In fact, I have already made several firm resolutions inspired by D/a/t/P. I will:

  1. Keep my first and final wife until one of us enters the System.
  2. Listen to and touch my first and final at every reasonable opportunity.
  3. Take my sugar and fat to the gym every day.
  4. Download "O, Röschen Rot" as the ringtone for my smartphone.

(Answer to pop quiz: the verse quoted by Simon comes from the poem Question by May Swenson.)