Since the emergence of human consciousness, mankind has been grappling with two eternal questions:
- What is life and where did life come from?
- What is death and what happens after death?
These questions gave rise to religion. They also endure in works of art.
Paul Gaugain inscribed this on one of his masterpieces:
D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous
(Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?)
E.B. White asked in “Charlotte’s Web”:
“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”
For fellow humans living in the 21st century, composer Tod Machover asks these existential questions again in a futuristic opera “Death and the Powers“, a production of the MIT Media Lab where he teaches Music and Media.
Instead of exotic indigenous Tahitian women, the protagonist in the opera, Simon Powers, is a tech inventor and billionaire who can control world economy and ecology even after his “death” (an undefinable concept here). Instead of an idyllic farm and barnyard animals, the setting is a digital world inhabited by robots in the distant future, when the entire human race only exists as uploads to “The System”. Instead of oil on canvass or ink on paper, the medium is layers of art (music, poetry, singing, acting, stage design…) upon layers of technology (robots, computer-controlled LED lighting, animated billboards, multi-city simulcasts, companion apps…).
The high-tech wizardry should impress even the geekiest in Silicon Valley. Collaborating with the composer, acclaimed for applying technology to music, is an all-star ensemble that includes poet-laureate Robert Pinsky as the librettist, baritone Robert Orth as Simon Powers, and Tony Award winner Diane Paulus as the Original Stage Director. Together they delivered an operatic experience raved about even in the critical circle (see here, here and here).
However, all of that isn’t just techno gizmo to lure the new “always-on” generation to an art form seen by many as getting stale, while holding on to serious opera buffs with enough artistic merit.
Technology is very much integral to the story, immersing the audience in the age-old questions about life and death again, this time with 21st century complexities – while religions are still fighting to win believers with their respective answers and narratives as mankind settles into the new millennium, scientific and technological advances have made the questions more complicated and nuanced. The story is not entirely science-fiction – robots have been used in real-world applications from agriculture to military; bionic limbs are already in the marketplace; Google has invested billions in Artificial Intelligence, DeepMind being its latest acquisition. Along such trajectory, disintegration of consciousness from physical beings, as showcased by the Machover team – so far still an imagination – is perhaps not inconceivable. The existential questions are no longer just philosophical or theological. They are now biological and neurological, and can be broken apart into pieces.
- Is Simon Powers really dead if his “mind” is preserved and operating digitally, wielding power over the world, even though the “meat” and “matter” have been done away with?
- Is he still alive to Evvy (his third and favorite wife, glamourous and, of course, half his age!), if he can give her sexual pleasure from the cyber system without corporal touch? Or is it “touch” anyway, if her brain is receiving the same stimulation and generating the same sensations?
- Is digital immortality really life, if it’s devoid of the soul and isolated from humanity? This, ponders Miranda, his daughter from a previous marriage, as she agonizes over the decision of whether to follow his father into “The System”.
The most lovable among the characters, remarkably compassionate for a tycoon’s offspring, Miranda ultimately chooses to stay mortal with her fellow humans, in spite of the pain and miseries that come with life, often of their own doing.
Dazzled or disturbed by the epic drama, jazzed or jarred by the hyperinstrumentalized music, the audience was left to mull over these powerful questions.
“Death and the Powers” premiered in 2010 in Monte Carlo. After two other runs in Boston and Chicago, it was performed by the Dallas Opera on 12th, 14th, 15th and 16th of this month, with live simulcasts in 8 cities across the U.S. and Europe. I saw the Sunday matinee simulcast at the Stanford Bing Concert Hall.
The full videos of “Death and the Powers” can be found on the Opera of the Future website. The opera made Machover a Finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music.