News and Features

The Rise Of The Robots

powers5editChillin’ backstage with their homies. Photo credit: Jerome Weeks

If you’ve heard of the opera, Death and the Powers, you’ve probably heard it called the ‘robot opera.’ It features not just futuristic robots onstage, but an entire set that moves and flashes images.  Dallas Opera is currently presenting Death and the Powers, and KERA’s Jerome Weeks went backstage at the Winspear Opera House to learn more about the robots’ inner workings.

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The sound of the future in composer Tod Machover’s opera, Death and the Powers, is a sound that manages to combine symphonic music, choral wails and the synthesized bleeps and chitterings one would expect from a sci-fi opera: In this case, it’s the sound of robots downloading human memories in Death‘s opening prologue.

But backstage at the Winspear Opera House, the future sounds a little different — a bit rattley. It’s one of the opera’s eleven robots racing — well, rolling slowly — to get in place for a rehearsal. The robot is being directed by its human handlers to move to center stage, but it needs to get up a little ramp first.

Composer Tod Machover has made a name for himself where technology meets music — that’s what he teaches as part of the MIT Media Lab. He’s even invented new kinds of musical instruments. But these opera bots are something different: “They’re about seven feet tall.” he says, “and their heads look like Plexiglas, triangle pizza boxes, something Apple might make if they were selling pizza, you know.”

KAP_2870The robots don’t like it when you do that: Robert Orth as Simon Powers in Death and the Powers. Photo credit: Karen Almond

Actually, onstage, when they’re all lit up, the robots are more elegant than that sounds. But backstage, without all the dramatic lighting, the opera bots might make you think of very tall Roombas. They move and sound like that — kind of iPad Roombas on stilts.

But the robots are not just fancy props to make Death and the Powers look like a Futurama stage show. They’re central to the opera; they essentially perform it. In this future, humans no longer exist. But the robots remain, and they’ve been left with a story to tell. It’s the story of Simon Powers, a billionaire genius who downloads himself into a computerized system in order to live forever. And it’s the story of how his family welcomes that or opposes it.

“The idea is that the robots are playing the human characters,” Machover says. “One by one, the robots are onstage, and there’s images of the human characters and that information is sucked into each robot, and then there’s a flash. And the robots are gone, and the human characters are there.”

So Death and the Powers is like most films about robots or cyborgs – films like Bladerunner or Robocop or Ghost in the Shell. All of them are about what it means to be human. But, let’s face it, it’s a robot opera. The robots are much of the appeal.

And when these were first built, the opera bots were even more advanced than they are now. Bob Hsiung is the technical development manager. He helped design and build them (Alex McDowell is the overall production designer).

“The original intent,” Hsiung says, “was for them to be completely autonomous – and just kinda sense where the other performers are and move around them. And the director, Diane Paulus, came to rehearsal and said, ‘No, that’s too slow, they move too smoothly.’  She really wanted a more organic-looking motion.”

So the design team hooked the robots up to joysticks. That’s right, these robots are glorified, remote-controlled, toy cars. But that means their handlers have to be able to see where they’re steering them. So backstage, on either side, out of view of the audience, are two tall scaffolding towers.  And that’s where the four robot handlers look down, with their joysticks and their headsets.

“The stage manager will give a cue,” says Hsiung. “They’ll say, ‘Bot 6, stand by, Bot 6, go’ and then they know they’re all supposed to form a circle or do whatever it is. And they’re watching the stage, so they don’t kill anybody.”

Ironically, this means the robots – those icons of everything advanced and futuristic — may not be the most complicated technology here. That may be all the elaborate lighting and video effects, which even include the Winspear’s chandelier (Donald Holder is the lighting designer). Or that may be the global simulcast that Dallas Opera has arranged for Sunday’s performance, with nine other cities from San Francisco to Stockholm getting to watch Death and the Powers.

But at the curtain call, at the end of this opera about what it means to be human, it’s the robots who get some of the biggest applause.