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‘Death and the Powers’: Farewell to conventional theater

American Repertory Theater and MIT Media Lab collaborate on a play that has many unforeseen ‘Powers.’

In a futuristic quest for immortality, Simon Powers, the main character of “Death and the Powers: The Robot’s Opera,” downloads everything about himself into his environment — and literally becomes the show’s set. Through enormous panels of light and a musical chandelier, he expresses emotion, communicates with family and relives memories.

“We’re looking at how far technology can take over human aspects,” explains Tod Machover, composer of this collaboration between the American Repertory Theater and MIT Media Lab.

For much of the show, baritone James Maddalena plays the Simon Powers role from a sound booth. He’s hooked up to sensors that analyze his singing, movement, breathing and muscle tension, which are then translated to the behavior of the set. It’s called disembodied performance.

“The singer disappears, so we don’t have any visual frame of reference,” says Machover.

While “Powers” is a deep study of the human/machine relationship, it’s also an exhibition of trailblazing music technology: Twelve singing robots narrate the show, and Machover can make acoustic changes mid-performance with his customized iPad.

“Ultimately, it is an opera,” he says. “Music is what ties it all together, what brings you into this story.”

 
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