90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Robot Opera And Immortality

We talk with Tod Machover, composer of “Death and the Powers” about human life, legacy and uploading the mind.

Operabots performing in "Death and the Powers."


In the new robot opera, “Death and the Powers,” humans are history. So is flesh and blood- as ‘so over’ as the dinosaurs.

The high-tech drama, composed by Tod Machover, tells the story of how one eccentric billionaire led the way, by refusing to die.   He uploads himself – his mind – into the realm of digital immortality, and leaves his worldly body behind.  Machover, known as “America’s most wired composer” and director of the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab, thinks of his character Simon Powers, as “a combination of Howard Hughes, Walt Disney and  Bill Gates,” who rather than wanting to live forever, desired “to leave the world, but leave everything about himself here.”

Director Diane Paulus and composer Tod Machover of "Death and the Powers" in WBUR's On Point studio. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

 It sounds like science fiction to some.  And like new religion or “nerd rapture” to others.  But it is seeming more and more like a near reality.  This isn’t the artificial intelligence of man versus machine of Watson (our show with Watson creator), but rather man becoming machine.  At its heart, the opera digitally dramatizes humanity’s oldest dream of the immortal living legacy. 

Diane Paulus, director of “Death and the Powers,” explains that the opera is “a meditation on the nature of death.”   No longer is the after-life solely a matter of faith and religion, but with the world of operabots and the technology of the dematerialized, uploaded consciousness we have “man’s ultimate attempt to control the world …. an active attempt to define [the] future” says Machover. 

In this hour, On Point, opera, like all technology, is as Machover tells us, “very seldom the way we imagine it.” 


Tod Machover, composer and inventor. His new work is “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera.” He’s been called “America’s most wired composer” by the Los Angeles Times, and is professor of music and media and director of the opera of the future group at the MIT Media Lab.

Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory theater, and director of “Death and the Powers.”

Brian Dickie, general director of  the Chicago Opera Theater, which will present “Death and the Powers” in Chicago in April.


Machover says “one of the ways that you make yourself immortal is by creating works of art,” take a look at his immortal creation:  




See the robot opera live:

BOSTON: March 18, 20, 22, 25  by The American Repertory Theater, at the Cutler Majestic Theater

CHICAGO: April 2, 6, 8, 10  by Chicago Opera Theater, at the Harris Theater

See Robert Pinsky’s draft of the “Death and the Powers” libretto here.

See more images from the “Death and the Powers” here.

Human performer dances with an operabot in "Death and the Powers"

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Zeno

    IMO that looks like an exercise in visual and auditory dissonance. But, I don’t care for opera anyway.

  • ThresherK

    Is this drawing on themes explored by Karel Kapek and Fritz Lang? If so, I’m interested.

  • Ren Knopf

    Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long comes promptly to mind. Was this an influence?
    Ren Knopf

  • Jdsmith02115

    This is a concept I’ve tossed around in my mind since I first became aware of the idea of “AI”. I have rejected the concept as a personal option as so MUCH of what I consider living is involved with interaction with the physical world. Without this essential connection to the physical, whatever that state might be, seems quite empty to me and singularly unattractive.

  • Anonymous

    Can he beat Watson?

  • Ted Shoemaker

    There are a lot of fascinating philosophical ideas here, especially about the nature of “mind” or the “self”, i.e., if mind/self is transferred to another medium is it the “same” mind/self, or will it be different because of its different instantiation. However, one idea that seems to run through this, and other similar stories, is immortality, living “forever”. What about “rust” (we won’t get into stainless steel). It’s a big, long universe (or multiverse). Entropy increases. Metals and other non-organic substances change at the sub-atomic level over billions of years. Even our universe may have it’s end. Forever? Really? How about just a long, long time.

    -Ted Shoemaker

    • Tjthompson43

      Ted, I love your comment “how about just a long long time.” These themes have all been explored in Greek plays, and more recently as technology has emerged, these themes are explored in science fiction. This opera seems dated to me. There have already been so many great books and plays it seems that opera is trying to catch up. 2001 A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner come immediately to mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

    See also Rosalind Picard’s one-act play, “Machines That Can Deny Their Maker.”


  • Tim

    I would like you to consider something larger than this topic. It is not about us (humans). It is about Big History or Cosmic Evolution. Humans are only a evolutionary step in the universal process from Chaos at the Big Bang to Universal Pure Thought in the future. The step from Human to computers is an evolutionary step just as in the past there were steps from the inanimate to life and life to intelligent life were steps. Again it is not about us, it never was.

  • Scott3mj

    Perception IS reality. If the “robots” perceive that they are the essence of the original people, then they are.

  • Music counts more

    This music makes me want to shoot myself. I love the concept, but an opera has to sound “good” too doesn’t it.

  • Tjthompson43

    Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson meet Wagner. Looks interesting. Reminds me of some of the themes found in Bladerunner and the new Battletsr Galactica.

    • Metbound

      Once again with the Wagner thing…..lol

      I found it to be more Hoiby or Floyd.

  • Inactionmanreborn

    The Singularity may be 35 years away but, a massive social dislocation due to “dumb” robots/computers is already upon us. All human labor will not be replaced but imagine 30% to % 40 of all jobs done by humans disappear in ten years.

    Watch Kiva Warehouse robots replace humans


    Read about computerized document review replacing lawyers


    Watch a kiosk replace order takers at Jack in the Box.


    DARPA has commissioned a cheetah like hunter killer robot from Boston Dynamics.


    There will be massive unemployment

    • Wm.James from Missouri


      I am so glad you brought up the subject of the singularity. I speak of this coming phenomena so much that the people around me are tired of hearing about it. The people ruling us are inept and unimaginative ( mostly, because they don’t understand mathematics, or computer science; and because they think in terms of toys and gadgets ) . They think they are untouchable. It’s somewhat comforting to know that their day is coming too ! Surprise !

      First, there is already massive unemployment, second there are about 50 million people on welfare in this country ! God only knows what the worldwide figure is. We are in the midst of a worldwide depression, Bernanke (sp?), a student of our “Great Depression” must have deluded himself into thinking that he learnt anything about the suffering that businesses can cause. Our current system is based on 16 thru 20 century reasoning, it is time for “new think” and action.

      Please understand, I am not against technology, in fact, I am a proponent. The problem is in the way we deal with the unintended consequences, such as unemployment. I have long suggested that it is time to move to a 6 hour workday, with overtime rates that vary inversely to the unemployment rate. We need to shift the labor supply/demand curve in such a way that there are more jobs than people. This would force real wages up. For the last 30 years, or so, we have seen real wages falling and employment opportunities evaporating.

      Since the ( I think ) 1920’s when the `current form of corporation was developed, the world has seen ever increasing power being given to an inanimate object, I.e. the corporation. Humans need to be made the focus of our adoration not a non-living piece of paper.

  • Linda

    What is sublime and eternal about technology? Computers crash. Hard drives get corrupted. Robotic parts wear out.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karen-Woodward-Sarrow/514858156 Karen Woodward Sarrow

      But data lives forever.

      • versteckt

        As does Lor.

  • ajinka

    Another occasion of robots and culture overlapping occurred in the 1921 play “Russum’s Universal Robots” by the czech playwright Karel Capek. This play introduced the word “robot”.

  • Susanels

    One question: What/Who is doing the leaving as opposed to what is being left?

  • Anonymous

    A mind not to be changed by place or time.
    The mind is its own place, and in itself
    Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
    What matter where, if I be still the same,

    - Milton

    • Silent Footfall

      The mind, which is immortal, makes itself
      Requital for its good and evil thoughts-
      Is its own origin of ill, and end-
      And its own place and time, its innate sense,
      When stripped of this mortality, derives
      No color from the fleeting things without,
      But is absorbed in sufferance or in joy;
      Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

      - Byron

  • Silent Footfall

    I’m sorry for hating on what’s clearly important to your guests, just my opinion: doesn’t this seem like a laughably terrible show to anyone else? I thought it was a self-parody at first, in the vein of the Planet of the Apes musical from The Simpsons, or the Dracula puppet show from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I literally laughed out loud in my car when I heard the sound clip of the robot saying something like “Death.. Death.. Can not compute…” or when the caller brought up the notion of a robot Hamlet soliloquy.. These themes of computers struggling to comprehend human mortality + emotions don’t strike anyone as cliche? Not even after Watson week on Jeopardy? As played-out as that is, I think the format is the most absurd notion. You exhibit the taxonomy and conspicuousness of scientific/techno language in the format of an Opera?? I thought they were supposed to be subtle and dainty?? Am I the only one struck at how comically bad this sounds? SORRY, had to get that out, and there are clearly people out there who like this and I accept that.

    • Tjthompson43

      You are absolutely right. The intellectuals have discovered science fiction and its not pretty. Robert Pinsky should stick to poetry and the singers should stay with Wagner. It’s all been done. It is laughable.

      • Silent Footfall

        Haha, thank you. Glad to see I’m not the only one that feels this way. Agree, this is really SciFi 101

      • Metbound

        Wow…..Singers should stay with Wagner? Im pretty sure you haven’t an ounce of a clue as to what Wagnerian music is; how little you know about the repertoire as a whole. Both of you need just a little more education in the matter. I would guess that when asked who your favorite opera singers are you would say Josh Groban and Charlotte Church…..now THATS laughable.

      • reelb1gskunk

        That’s a pretty conservative statement. If everybody stuck to what they already did, we would have no innovation.

    • anonymous

      Without having seen it there’s no way to judge if it’s self aware or ironic at all. And opera’s are not at all subtle or dainty. Mozart’s operas were usually pretty blatantly dirty. Plus the format just doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. There aren’t hundreds of pages devoted to exposition and the songs end up repeating themselves over and over and over.

  • Scott3mj

    Miranda? Prospero’s daughter from “The Tempest”, or going farther back for the name?

  • Medholm1

    What if….

  • Pingback: Tod Machover and Diane Paulus at “On Point” « Opera of the Future

  • Pingback: Robot Opera & Immortality « Express! Celebrate Music

  • Lindax

    I generally don’t attend operas for the libretto. This tale isn’t any nuttier than, say, the Magic Flute. That said, I didn’t find the music on the clip particularly engaging. I don’t think that has anything to do with the opera’s theme.

  • Agent222

    Very “Metropolis”. It made me laugh at first but it’s very creative. I love the lighting work and the robots too but it seems very comical. They took a creative step(or stumble) towards something new and that’s cool.

  • Pingback: » Today’s Lesson mattempson.com

  • Anonymous

    Do these ‘bots know any Klingon opera?

  • Scott Settlemier

    It’s probably an unrealistic dream that uploading ever become a gateway for human immortality. It’s probably much easier and inevitable that we create artificial beings as beyond us as we are the ants. What use would they have for the messy, limited contents of a human brain? Our creations will emerge from under our control to succeed us as humanity’s children. Their biological ancestors will probably have little if any place.

  • Pingback: Robot Operas and Citation Styles | English 102, Winter 2011

  • Geneous

    Seems to me this would be creating a clone of one’s self consciousness rather than a transfer. After the event they go their separate ways. The metaphor of “upload” actually implies a cloning.

  • Michael


    this show reminded me of the Flight of the Concords “the humans are died”

    It’s the distance future the year 2000

  • Michael
  • Anonymous

    This basic premise is also explored in the book “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan. It’s rather gritty, sexual, and visceral as Science Fiction goes, but if you can get past that it’s worth a read. It provokes an emotional and philosophical response in that way the very best Science Fiction always does.

    It explores our self obsession as humans and the ethical pratfalls we might likely develop if certain members of society were allowed to persist indefinitely through the continual uploading of their consciousness and personality into new vessels. A new order of social class is born… “Methusalians” who in some cases begin to think of themselves as Gods, outside of ethical and legal boundaries and removed from the cares and concerns of all the other merely mortal people around them.

  • Wesley

    I saw this opera in Monaco and it’s wonderful! It takes a classic sci fi (or mythological, or religious) concept about the human quest to escape death as a way to explore some timeless questions about life, love, and what connects human beings to one another. These are serious, accomplished, contemporary artists who have found a witty, insightful and moving way to express their ideas. The text by Robert Pinsky is erudite and hilarious. I thought the set design by Alex McDowell (he did the brilliant production design for Minority Report) was fantastic. The way the walls, robots and chandelier moved and morphed provided a very convincing portrayal of a character who has uploaded himself into his house. The music is a knockout. Miranda’s aria moved me (and many in the audience) to tears, and the final duet, when Simon returns for one last time to try to convince Miranda to follow him into The System, left me drained. I am really excited about seeing it again in Boston.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cbongard Christian Bongard

    Could those digital people still be able to own property, run companies, work, vote, freedom of speech?

    If corporations have constitutional rights, about the digitized human brain?

  • http://www.facebook.com/cbongard Christian Bongard

    Could those digital people still be able to own property, run companies, work, vote, freedom of speech?

    If corporations have constitutional rights, about the digitized human brain?

    • http://twitter.com/operafuture Opera of the Future

      Apparently, Simon Powers can “still write checks” after he has uploaded into The System. We can easily imagine our automatic payments, subscription renewals, etc., continuing after we’ve met our physical demise. And considering the way some companies are run, they might be better off managed by a virtual robot!

  • Brett

    Well, it’s no Boito’s Mefistofele, I’ll tell you that! …it’s not even Lutz’ Faust and Marguerite…When I first heard the concept at the opening of the show I thought that it would have been a neat idea about fifteen years ago in an effort to get young techies interested in opera. It sure seems so self-conscious and overly worked, almost to the point of irony or parody.

    Any work of “art” (especially one which relies so heavily on its concept) has to stand on its own merits; in this case, as an opera, as a piece of music. It doesn’t. The set design (and execution) gets high marks…the rest seems like bilge put in a fancy bottle.

  • Pingback: Transumanism in Opera: MIT Professor Creates Robotic Opera | Singularity Hub

  • Pingback: Short Takes on Short (SF) Films | Lingua Fantastika

  • Mariaveronica1803

    Opera is a genre that I don’t understand. Although I,ve heard the trailer several times, I don’t know what they want to express.

  • Maria Mendizabal002

    Opera is a genre that I don’t understand. Although I,ve heard the trailer several times, I don’t know what they want to express.

Aug 21, 2014
In this November 2012, file photo, posted on the website freejamesfoley.org, shows American journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group have beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials say. (AP)

An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
Jen Joyce, a community manager for the Uber rideshare service, works on a laptop before a meeting of the Seattle City Council, Monday, March 17, 2014, at City Hall in Seattle. (AP)

We’ll look at workers trying to live and make a living in the age of TaskRabbit and computer-driven work schedules.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Your (Weird? Wonderful? Wacky?) Roommate Stories
Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014

We asked, and you delivered: some of the best roommate stories from across our many listener input channels.

More »
Our Week In The Web: August 15, 2014
Friday, Aug 15, 2014

On Pinterest, Thomas the Tank Engine and surprising population trends from around the country. Also, words on why we respond to your words, tweets and Facebook posts.

More »
Nickel Creek Plays Three Songs LIVE For On Point
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014

Nickel Creek shares three live (well, mostly) tracks from their interview with On Point Radio.

More »