It's not something you'd see at your typical opera, robots and technology taking center stage but that's exactly what happened in Death and the Powers that premiered in the US this past weekend.
It centers on a man who is tired of the physical world, but still wants to remain digitally. He downloads himself into what's called the system and interacts with characters and the audience using what composer Tod Machover calls disembodied performance.
Tod Machover, Composter & Creative Director, Death and the Powers and Professor of Music & Media, MIT Media Lab: "Once he turns on the system and enters the system, he goes off stage down into the orchestra pit. We've built a special booth for him, a little bit like an isolation booth. We measure many aspects of his performance. So we measure his voice.
"We have sensors on his hands so we can measure all his gestures. We have sensors on his biceps on both arms so we can measure muscle tension and we have a sensor right below his ribcage that measures his breathing. So we take these measurements, translate it and send it onto the stage and his behavior controls evertyhign that happens on the walls, the look, the lighting the ways things move and it controls the way the robots move quite a bit of the time and it controls how his voice goes out in the room."
The chorus of robots that wheel around the stage are at times autonomous and other times under control of an operator and other sources. The computing power for each of the bots is done by the small and inexpensive One Laptop Per Child XO computer.
"There are twelve robots, we call them operabots because they're the first opera performing robots that we know. They're all independent so they're not connected to each other. They also have eyes and ears. They're triangular. Triangle base, triangle head. We wanted to make robots that exhibit communication and emotion, but didn't' look like human beings so they're triangular, metallic, plexiglass, but they do have a lot of degrees of freedom.
"They also have omni wheels in the three corners so they can move forward and to the side without turning like a car. They have really sophisticated wirless controlling so they can communicate with the controller and with each other. They have sound on them so they can sing they can also listen to the orchestra in the pit and they can play and control the movement of the robots."
And Machover is already planning his next undertaking that he says will blur the lines between real and fantasy.
"It's a story about a painter and her and her imaginary world and her real world interacting with the people around her and the painting she's making on a physical stage, the boundary between those things is blured. And one minute you're in real life, one minute you're int he painting and one minute you're in her mind. And you know what? We don't know how to do that either, but we're going to figure it out."
Death and the Powers runs in Boston until March 25 and then moves on to Chicago.