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JONATHAN WILLIAMS/Chicago Opera Theater

Evvy, played by soprano Emily Albrink, sings to her husband whose spirit embodies the chandelier that she clings to in the opera.

'Death and the Powers' takes operatic look at immortality

by Bethany Hubbard
April 06, 2011


JONATHAN WILLIAMS/Chicago Opera Theater

"Who will I be?  What will I see, when this body is gone?" sings Miranda, played by soprano Sara Heaton as she contemplates entering The System, a digital network of immortal life. Assistant Nicholas, played by tenor Hal Cazalet, looks on.

What if you were given the opportunity to download yourself into a digital system that preserved your very being even after your body ceases to function? Would you embrace a computerized existence as an alternative to death?

In Chicago Opera Theater’s “Death and the Powers, The Robots’ Opera,” Simon Powers, a rich successful inventor, chooses to leave his physical body behind by downloading himself into a digital network of immortal life that he calls The System.

“It isn’t the blood, it isn’t the bone. It’s never the matter that matters,” Simon sings to his daughter, Miranda, wife, Evvy and assistant, Nicholas.

“The matter is mortal, but the system lives on,” they all sing as Simon prepares to download.

In his new form, Simon no longer inhabits his body, but instead permeates the rooms of his home, resonates within the walls and even embodies a chandelier.

This new and innovative production that made its Midwest debut on Saturday night at the Harris Theater is the brainchild of opera composer, and MIT professor, Tod Machover. With a team of engineers and designers from the MIT Media Lab, Machover created new technologies that result in a spectacle of sound and light.

A chorus of actual robots opens and closes the show. Sensors hooked up to the performers generate visual translations of their movements and voices through hundreds of LED lights embedded in a moving set. The audience hears the opera through 143 speakers that create a surround-sound experience.

At a Q & A Monday night, Machover, one of the creators of the popular video game Guitar Hero, revealed some of the secrets behind his masterpiece. Using an iPad, the composer demonstrated his ability to manipulate sound levels during the performance. Meanwhile, his team, some hidden above the stage, directs robots called Operabots with XBOX 360 controllers.

He also strummed the long Teflon strings on his “living” chandelier to show how they generate sound when played.

Though fantastical in nature, “Death and the Powers” presents a scenario that may one day become widely available.

Kenneth Hayworth, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, heads The Brain Preservation Foundation, an organization working to develop brain slicing and electron imaging technology that will allow us to one day scan our brains into a computer.

“If a proven technique for brain preservation was made widely available it would firstly eliminate our fear of personal death and the ultimate loss we feel when a loved one dies,” says Hayworth. “Once we start considering ourselves to have indefinite lifespans we will have a totally changed perspective relative to the future, becoming, among other things, better stewards of the environment.”

The first step is to create a human connectome, or map of the neural connections in the brain, which Hayworth believes will be accomplished in 20-30 years.

“Mind uploading will allow us to eliminate aging, disease, and–yes–even depression,” Hayworth says.

Nicholas Hatsopoulos, a researcher with the University of Chicago’s Department of Neurology, is working to create technology that translates a human or animal thought into a computer command. With recorded brain signals, people who have lost the ability to communicate can once again express themselves by mentally moving a cursor on a computer.

Hatsopoulos, an associate professor, chairs the department's Committee on Computational Neuroscience.

“If we can read the mind at the moment, in principle we can access stored memories as well,” Hatsopoulos says, but adds that accessing and storing long-term memories is not yet possible.

Machover says that “Death and the Powers” does not convey a single message, but the idea of legacy is central to the story.

“I thought quite a bit about the fact that my daughters will never know my parents in the same way that I know my parents,” Machover says. “The texture, all the small things in any human life are so difficult to pass on.”

While Simon’s daughter Miranda chooses to remain in the physical world, Evvy ultimately decides to follow Simon into The System leaving me to wonder what I would do in a similar situation.

If you leave a digital legacy behind, will your loved ones find comfort in your presence, or feel compelled to follow? When one goes, will we all join the virtual exodus?

"Death and the Powers, The Robots' Opera" plays at the Harris Theater through April 10. Tickets available at