Just about the two oldest questions human beings face are the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers, which premiered in Monaco in 2014, blasts those issues into the digital age in a production by the Dallas Opera at Winspear Opera House through Sunday.
Renowned American poet Robert Pinsky provided the sci-fi text, set in a world in which humans have turned the world over to robots; the drama opens with robots preparing to perform a ritual commemorating the transformation of a human family into “the system,” or post-biological existence. Rather than the ritual, the audience witnesses the events themselves, in which the family, including the billionaire magnate Simon Powers (baritone Robert Orth), his third wife Evvy (mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley), his daughter Miranda (soprano Joélle Harvey) and his adopted son Nicholas (tenor Hal Cazalet), face the shift to non-biological existence with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance.
The often pun-driven, occasionally humorous but generously reflective text (with generous appropriations from Yeats) gradually shifts its focus from Simon’s desire to live forever in the form of artificial intelligence to resistance to that plan from the aptly named Miranda (see Shakespeare’s The Tempest). Ultimately, as presented here, absorption into “the system” is yet another—albeit new and original—metaphorical representation of death and the possibility of immortality humans have dreamed and invented through the ages.
Composer Machover’s dense, often beautifully orchestrated but relentlessly dissonant score (hearkening back at times in sound and mood to good old Schoenbergian expressionism) occasionally dallies with the rhetoric of romanticism, though there aren’t any tunes you’re likely hum on your way to the parking garage. The vocal writing for the soloists is largely traditional, and the climactic scene, in which Miranda declares her attachment to real physical life but accepts her absorption into “the system,” is a visceral, rock-concert-style moment that’s worth experiencing.
The singing by the principals in this obviously challenging score, ably conducted by Nicole Paiement, was unfailingly powerful and flawless, with soprano Harvey deservedly winning the loudest audience ovation. Stage director Andrew Eggert based his concept on the previous original stage direction by Diane Paulus.
At least part of the credit for the thrill of watching and hearing Death and the Powers goes to Alex McDowell’s high-tech visual design, with numerous heart-tugging projected images as well as relentless use of digital lighting effects. That’s part of what opera is increasingly about in the 21st century—we have clearly entered an era of “special effects” opera. The Dallas Opera, with this production following the premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick in 2010, is so far at the forefront of that movement, to the great benefit of the Dallas audience.