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Robot, of Thee I Sing

Pinsky’s words help put technology in innovative opera

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Three-time U.S. Poet Laureate and CAS Professor of English Robert Pinsky penned the libretto for an animatronic opera from MIT’s Tod Machover. Watch a clip of Death and the Powers above. Pinsky photo by Vernon Doucette

The phone call last year reminded Robert Pinsky of one he’d received three decades earlier from a computer programmer asking the young poet if he’d write the plot for an interactive text adventure. Mindwheel is still played today.

This time, on the other end of the line was avant-garde composer Tod Machover, a professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, a renowned center which studies the human-machine relationship. “I knew Tod slightly, appreciated his music,” recalls Pinsky, three-time U.S. poet laureate and a professor of English at the College of Arts & Sciences. Machover had been commissioned by patrons in Monaco to write an unusual opera prominently driven by technology.

Would Pinsky write the libretto?

The author of several acclaimed books of poetry, prose, and translation isn’t known for shying away from creative adventures, especially those involving the written word. From inexperience often comes freshness. So he jumped in, embracing the challenges of the new form.

“In a poem, you can let your imagination run free without it entailing a lot of people figuring out how to put it on a stage, to sing to it,” he says. “The opera involves practical consequences involving many people.”

Pinsky periodically met with Machover, along with the opera’s creative team and MIT students at the institute’s Media Lab in Cambridge, where they brainstormed ideas; the pair also regularly back-and-forthed by email. The collaboration proved fruitful: a one-act opera called Death and the Powers, a never-before-seen production featuring an animatronic set and a chorus of singing robots, or “OperaBots,” that frame a narrative exploring life beyond humanity. Alex McDowell, production designer for the 2002 Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09) movie Minority Report, created the machines.

“Robert is so fluent with words and ideas that it was always a great pleasure to explore possible story ideas, precedents and background material, underlying themes, always moving swiftly from rich historical references to today’s news to popular culture and back,” Machover says. “Robert knows everything.”

The story, which Pinsky cowrote with writer-director Randy Weiner, centers around a “gajillionaire” inventor named Simon Powers, who creates a new form of existence where his essential qualities—memories, desires, ability to communicate with loved ones and to influence businesses—are preserved after death. In short, he translates himself into a "system." Once Powers makes his final exit, the stage becomes robotic, his persona manifested through objects such as a musical chandelier and giant bookcases with lights that move to the music.

“I have been constantly delighted by what a pleasure it is to set Robert’s words—so intelligent and clear and sonorous—to music,” Machover says. “Robert’s rhythms and descriptions are not quite the same as mine, so his words have pushed me to new places. Their crispness and lack of sentimentality have sharpened my music, I think. Of course, words become something quite different when they are merged with music, both less and more of how they were originally conceived.”

Pinsky will join Machover in Monte Carlo this week to attend the September 24 world premiere of Death and the Powers. Prince Albert II, the city-state’s ruler and honorary patron of the project, will attend the gala opening. The show debuts in Boston next spring. Audiences can expect nothing short of spectacle.

“We had an absolutely great designer,” Pinsky says. “With Tod, director Diane Paulus, choreographer Karole Armitage, and some great singers, that’s a very impressive team. Which makes me feel very lucky.”

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Listen to Robert Pinsky discuss and read from his libretto Death and the Powers. Clip courtesy of Poetry Magazine. Audio recorded by the Poetry Foundation. Audio editing by Amy Laskowski.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Robot, of Thee I Sing

  • Brandy Barents on 09.22.2010 at 8:05 am

    Wonderful!

    Thank you so much for sharing this with the BU community; I especially enjoyed listening to Pinsky read from the opera. The language in the libretto sounds like it’s from a Greek tragedy and not an opera involving robots! I can’t wait to see it in the spring.

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