Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hal Cazalet as the cute young cyborg in Death and the Powers.

In the future, robots will perform boring operas that they can't understand.

That roughly seems to be the message of Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, a brilliantly lit, but slightly tedious, new opera by composer Tod Machover and librettist Robert Pinsky (after a story by Pinsky and Randy Weiner), which closes tonight at the Cutler Majestic.  Machover is a major mucky-muck at the famed Media Lab (basically a kind of lab + marketing agency at my alma mater, MIT); meanwhile Pinsky, ensconced at BU, is a three-time Poet Laureate.  You're not sure, from all this star-power, whether the problem with Death and the Powers is that these stars just weren't alignment - or whether perhaps they shouldn't, actually, be stars.

Tod Machover
But one thing you're sure about is that light show.  Damn!  Designers Alex McDowell (production), Donald Holder (lighting), Peter Torpey (visuals and software) and Matt Checkowski (media) - I list them all because the lighting is integrated into the set - had a collective field day with Death and the Powers, and the show they deliver is worth the price of admission all by itself.  As for Machover and Pinsky - well, not so much; although Pinsky does provide a convincing oratorical gloss on the libretto (so maybe it's the "story," such as it is, that's the problem).  Machover likewise offers a solid semblance of a score - but note that word "semblance;" the music feels somehow like a gloss, too.  Many of the vocal lines are singable, and the composer paces things well, and knows how to build to a climax; but nothing's memorable - and nothing's all that original, either.  The score pretty much sounds like a smart student's simplified remix of his mentors (Machover's were Carter and Boulez), and never really attains anything like an individual signature; it's almost too easy, in fact, to believe the opera was written by robots.

The automatons in question, by the way, get most of the libretto's best lines.  The conceit is that we're watching a mechanical ritual set far in the future; in a scene like something out of A.I., a group of surprisingly low-tech androids (they look like vacuum cleaners with glowing, pizza-wedge heads) gather to re-enact an ancient scripture - which turns out, of course, to be Death and the Powers.  They puzzle over the text as we might ponder Genesis (in a way it is their Genesis) - particularly its central theme: death.  The robots have no idea what "death" might be.  (I guess there are no on/off switches in the future, much less power failures.)

Yet to honor their age-hold tradition (and, wittily enough, to earn "human status credits"), the robots once again re-enact the tale of Simon Powers (James Maddalena), an ailing genius-billionaire who, rather like Steve Jobs, suddenly comes face-to-face with his mortality.  Instead of venturing into that undiscovered country, however, he uploads his consciousness into a computer (just like in Tron!) instead. Or rather a computer network, or at any rate something called "The System," which at first seems to merely control his thermostat and microwave, but eventually seems to be running much of the outside world as well.

And that's about it for the action of the opera.  Powers gets uploaded - and Maddalena vanishes into the orchestra pit, from which his voice is projected - and everybody talks about it quite a bit and wonders what it all means, and whether they should follow him.  Powers' wife and daughter (from a previous marriage, for some reason) are on the fence about his decision, although his cyborg sidekick is all for it - but the various arguments of this trio never get very deep, or seem very passionate.  And of course the actual process by which Powers is "uploaded" remains a mystery (as does the disposal of his physical remains) - because this moment, although often evoked in science fiction, is kind of like the geek version of the Virgin Birth: if you think about its transubstantive aspects at all seriously, it suddenly looks ridiculous.

It's better in HAL's memory bank - James Maddalena tries to lure Sara Heaton into "The System."

Not that the question of a computer becoming conscious isn't fascinating - it is; and unsurprisingly, it's already been "covered," as it were (and to far greater effect) in all manner of books, movies, TV shows and plays - from which Death and the Powers borrows copiously, without adding much. Indeed, the opera simply dodges its most intriguing question - if, indeed, something patterned after consciousness could be made operative in a computer, could we ever know if it was really "alive"? Yes, we would,  Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky inform us. Just because, okay?? End of story!

A similar article of faith undercuts the libretto in a deeper way. Scanning Pinsky and Weiner's script, you might take Death and the Powers as a cautionary tale. After all, Powers clearly doesn't achieve immortality - we know from the prologue that somebody eventually pulled the plug on "the System." And as Simon gets more comfortable in his new virtual abode, he gets more distant, and pissily mystical (think the Great and Powerful Oz crossed with Ming the Merciless) - without, I'm afraid, actually offering us any new visions or insights.

The claw!  The claw! I have been chosen!
Yet the opera feels weirdly triumphalist. We get the impression we're supposed to think - in a clich├ęd "The future is NOW!" kind of way - that its techno-bionic vision is fabulous and inevitable. But somehow this renders Pinsky's T.S.-Eliot-in-the-Twilight-Zone ironies inoperative; the text is in essence opposed to its marketing (and in a way the whole thing is more a branding strategy than an opera).  And so we can't help but notice the opera is floating in a thematic limbo - at least until the light grid fires up again (as above).

Some passing interest was generated, I admit, by one central question - which was not "Can a computer  be truly conscious?", but instead "Can a computer have an orgasm??" As Death and the Powers was directed by Diane Paulus, the answer of course is a resounding "Yes I said YES!" - the computer does come, in quite a light show, thanks to a shiny chandelier that looks like a giant vagina designed by Santiago Calatrava (above left). Every home should have one.  Another bid at dramatic development was more puzzling - Weiner's story suddenly abandons Kubrick for Ayn Rand about two thirds of the way through, with a John-Galt-esque subplot about the rioting masses, etc.  But a better strategy to hold our interest might have been to further develop the opera's characters - simply giving daughter Miranda her own brush with mortality, for instance, would have given her struggle over entering "The System" a weight and meaning that right now it doesn't have.

I should say that most of the singing in the production was quite strong (with Sara Heaton's Miranda a standout), although the complicated amplification tended to artificialize and distance things (as it almost always does); perhaps that's why the singing gave me little pleasure.  And Diane Paulus's direction was, as usual, competent but uninspired.  The Paulus "phenomenon" has kind of metastasized of late - her shows keep popping up all over town, like tumors - but I've yet to see one that struck me as revelatory of any deep talent.  Instead, Paulus fascinates me as an avatar of our cultural decline.  She's quite smart, of course, and appreciates precisely how to keep a career afloat by "breaking boundaries" without actually generating any new content. Which makes her the perfect "artist" for our age - an era devoted to formal experimentation as a way of disguising its stasis (or nostalgic drift). Add the ART's seeming abandonment of the ethical profile of a traditional non-profit to the mix, and you realize Paulus's rise was almost over-determined. But I do wonder - now that she's got, what, three shows running simultaneously in town, is husband Randy still pocketing the bar tab over at Oberon?  I wonder!

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