Digital systems for live multimodal performance in Death and the Powers

Torpey, Peter. (2014). Digital systems for live multimodal performance in Death and the Powers. International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media. 8. 109-123. 10.1386/padm.8.1.109_1.


The opera Death and the Powers by Tod Machover tells the story of a man, Simon Powers, who evades death by transferring his essence into his environment as his corporeal body dies. To realize the effect of the theatrical environment coming alive as the main character, the Opera of the Future research group at the MIT Media Lab developed new technologies and control systems for interactive robotics, sound and visuals in live theatre. A core component of this work is the technique of Disembodied Performance, a method and associated technological infrastructure that translates the live performance of the offstage opera singer into multimodal representations onstage. The author was principally responsible for the control architecture and Disembodied Performance software implementation, as well as the design of the visual language used to represent Simon Powers. These digitally-enabled elements were created in order to support the story of the opera and facilitate the process of crafting and rehearsing the staged experience. This article reflects on the dialogue between the design of the technological systems in conjunction with the development of the story and scenography of the opera. Several design principles are presented for the role of new technologies in digital opera and music-driven performance contexts that arose during the course of this work. The discussed methods of cuing, authoring, organizing and collaborating suggest an approach for scoring the multimedia elements of digitally augmented stagecraft.

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