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Opera for a New Age

Futuristic "Death and the Powers" features one man's quest for digital immortality — and singing robots

A small group of robots has gathered. Hunched toward one another, they look slightly forlorn. Translucent, glowing white, sitting on hydraulic tubes, they've emerged from some future version of the factories that today pump out iPads, iPods and iPhones. As Tod Machover's new opera, Death and the Powers, begins, the operabots sing and chant their sad story.

Their tale is about a long ago "Organic" age — when people, and their meat-bound bodies, still ruled the earth. Billionaire Simon Powers has decided to leave that world and download himself into The System, the glowing, pulsing network that promises relief from earthly woes. He'd like to take his wife and daughter with him to this seemingly simple future state.

Machover describes Powers as "Howard Hughes meets Bill Gates meets Walt Disney," alluding to the combination of eccentricity, wealth and Imagineering that drives the mogul to leave the world, "downloading himself into the environment, [while] keeping his memories, his ability to run his business interests, and his ability to communicate with his loved ones."

Powers' wife, Evvy, is a willing partner in his quest. For her, the music of the spheres, the erotic pull of the vibrations that create sound and light, leads her toward her husband's new state of being in the ether.

But his daughter, Miranda, has doubts. For her, the reality of life among those with solid flesh is not to be given up lightly. Earthly misery won't be erased by her father's abdication. With soaring arias, she wrestles to find the line between what might be useful about the "real" world, and the pull of Simon's people-free, clean and digital universe.

There's a lot borrowed from the Matrix movies in Death and the Powers. And poetry is a thread through the opera, which is not surprising, since Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate, has written the libretto. More firepower on the creative team: director Diane Paulus, who helmed the hit Broadway revival of Hair, and choreographer Karole Armitage, another Hair alum whose own company, Armitage Gone! Dance, pulls together influences from ballet to Merce Cunningham.

The tech world has been receptive to the opera, and in its U.S. premiere the robots received applause second only to the work's creator. But one of the most astute observers of the music scene, Andrew Porter, wrote in Opera Magazine after the world premiere in Monaco in September 2010: "This was a grand, rich, deeply serious new opera, presented by a team with manifold, coherent accomplishments."

After its American premiere in Boston in March, Death and the Powers will be presented in Chicago on Saturday and next week. And then, who knows — Machover's other work has found repeated hearings around the world, and this opera will live on, even if only in digital form, perhaps forever.

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