Death And The Powers Makes Us Premiere

Tod Machover’s Latest Groundbreaking Opera

Death and the Powers, a new opera by Tod Machover, head of the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future Group, made its US premiere in March as part of MIT’s Festival of Art, Science and Technology.

Hailed as 'a grand, rich, deeply serious new opera' (Opera Magazine), the one-act, full evening work introduces specially designed technology that includes a musical chandelier, a chorus of robots and an animated set that becomes an actual character in the story, launching a new era in opera production and expression.

‘Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it,’ wrote opera critic Heidi Waleson reviewing the work for the Wall Street Journal, ‘is how seamlessly the technology and the music worked together. All that hardware and software was about the people and the story, not about itself’.

The libretto, written by former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky with playwright Randy Weiner, tells the story of Simon Powers, an eccentric billionaire who seeks to defy his mortality by projecting himself into the future. To accomplish that he constructs The System, an invention that allows him to download his memories and personality into the physical environment. When he enters The System at the end of the first scene, the singer James Maddalena literally vanishes from the performance space, requiring the stage set to become the physical and emotional expression of his performance.

To pull off this technological feat, Machover turned to production designer Alex McDowell, one of the most innovative and influential designers working in narrative media. McDowell’s set expresses Powers’ persona through enormous bookcases with thousands of moving lights that pulsate to the rhythm of the music, and through a musical chandelier that can channel Simon’s presence while being strummed by his wife, Evvy. (‘I don’t think a string has ever been so salaciously plucked,’ said writer Ada Brunstein in The Atlantic.)

By capturing the essence of a performer whom the audience can’t see, Death and the Powers creates what Machover calls a ‘disembodied performance’, using software developed by PhD students Peter Torpey and Elly Jessop to measure such facets of the singer’s performance as volume, pitch, muscle tension and breathing patterns, elements that then become part of the look and feel of the animated stage set.

According to Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, this creative fusion of music and technology holds the potential for repositioning opera as an art form that embraces innovation, as it was known to do in previous centuries. While it will take some time for this opera’s influence to become manifest, Machover’s past endeavors have often yielded unexpected results – his audience-interactive Brain Opera, for instance, led to many of the technologies behind the Guitar Hero video game, developed by his protégés Eran Egozy (SB/SM’95) and Alex Rigopulos (SB’92, SM’94), who worked with him on that production.

Directed by Tony-nominee Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage, the US premiere was presented in collaboration with the American Repertory Theater as part of MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration. For more about the opera, including sound and video samples, visit For more about the Opera of the Future Group, visit