While on an artist’s residency in Silicon Valley, composer Nicole Lizée took a trip to Apple’s headquarters with librettist Nicolas Billon. They were seeking inspiration for their new opera about artificial intelligence, “RUR A Torrent of Light” — but all they found was a smaller-than-usual Apple store in the visitors centre. As she recalls, “I asked the guard, ‘Is there another section?’ ‘No, but here is the T-shirt, and next door, you can get the coffee that people at Apple drink.’”
Lizée laughs, recalling how she and Billon, a Governor General’s Award-winning playwright, ended up so disappointed that they told each other, “We must never speak of this again.”
And yet, on the phone from her Montreal home, she keeps coming back to that “brain-dead experience.” It seems to have spurred her ambitions for “RUR A Torrent of Light” — which premiered Saturday in a production by Tapestry Opera. “I’m very excited,” she says. “There are a lot of surprises.”
Based loosely on Czech writer Karel Čapek’s seminal 1920 play “RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” which introduced the word “robot” into the international lexicon, the opera features a struggle between tech “power couple” Dom (played by baritone Peter Barrett) and Helena (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó) over how much autonomy to grant the humanoid robots they have invented.
Directed by Tapestry executive director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, the production features new technology built by professors and research assistants in the Digital Futures program at OCAD University, in whose Great Hall the opera will be staged. Performers will wear networked devices that light up with animations; sound will emanate from everywhere; 3D-mapped projections will make objects seem to come alive; percussionists and string players will play an array of 100 musical instruments; and singers and dancers will use vocabularies of music and motion inspired by machines.
Lizee sees the opera as a culmination of her ideas and aesthetic. Since her final project for her 2001 master’s degree at McGill — a turntable concerto for which she created her own notation — she has been devising new ways for performers to use both traditional instruments and technology, whether cutting-edge or “obsolete.”
A singer might interact with a karaoke tape; a pianist and percussionist may have a staged duel on the 1978 electronic memory game Simon. There may be projections of snippets of film from some of her favorite directors — Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino — looped and distorted to evoke the experience of watching them on chewed-up videocassettes.
Lizée’s father is an electronics repairman; she grew up fascinated by how devices operate and how they can be modified to be more artistic than utilitarian. For “RUR A Torrent of Light,” which is set in 2042, she says, “I imagined all of the old analog technology that has been dismissed or put in landfills would re-emerge, because it still works — that’s the beauty of it. Throughout the opera, there’ll be moments where something seemingly is a lab device or a piece of office equipment. In reality, it’s percussive equipment — or it can be both. I imagine in the future, sound permeates. It’s omnipresent.”
Early in the creative process, Mori brought OCAD U on board. Adam Tindale, professor of human-computer interaction, remembers “blue-sky sessions where we were trying to imagine: Should the robots be robots? Should the robots be human? Instead of human dancers, should we have a swarm of drones?”
In the production, the robot characters—played by dancers and singers—will be identified by badges with grids of LEDs that act as pixels, creating small screens, and by tubes that snake their way into collars and light up in shifting hues. Nick Puckett, who chairs the Digital Futures program, codesigned the wearable tech with Tindale and Kate Hartman, the founding director of OCAD U’s Social Body Lab. Says Puckett, “Technology isn’t the focus; it’s part of the story.”
The wearable tech will light up to indicate software upgrades and deviations. For Hartman, the tech, as integrated in costumes, works in dynamic ways that enable the team to approach light “more as a material than as an object.”
The robots, says Puckett, “are part-autonomous and part not, because they’re having lights and sounds projected onto them or from them that they don’t really have any control over.”
This issue preoccupies the character Helena, whom Mori calls “the genius inventor, combination Steve Wozniak and Einstein. She takes a lot of inspiration from different places—music, art, natural sciences—and is a cellist herself.” She plays with a bow that, when scraped along any surface, triggers a variety of sounds, drawn from both nature and machines.
Tindale made the bow, and he and the OCAD U team designed wearable speakers that will be concealed in the costumes of the “robot” dancers. Back in 2019, Tapestry premiered the experimental work “Augmented Opera,” with music by Benton Roark, in which audiences wore blindfolds while singers moved around them, simulating the virtual-reality immersion. The wearable speakers push the concept a step further. Says Lizée, “I wanted to have a context where the real or the tangible meets artifice. There are a lot of sound sources, but you’re not sure where the origin is. Also, the chorus and the ensemble are all singing to emulate effects.”
Lizée’s compositions often ask performers to warp their pitch, slow down, speed up, and stutter as if they’re glitching, to evoke melting tapes or error-prone devices. It’s a science fiction trope that humans and robots (or androids, or replicants) are more similar than you’d think. But “malfunctioning” singing may seem perverse in an opera—an art form that prides itself on showcasing the virtuosic capabilities of the highly trained, “authentic” human voice.
Says Mori, “My job in casting is to find people who are game for challenges, because this is part of the answer to what opera needs in the 21st century. Live performance is what everyone wants now, more than ever. Why shouldn’t we be bringing something surprising and exciting that’s still driven by story and the voice? The possibilities of technology and design augmenting opera have to grow.”
From the beginning, says Lizée, she wanted to future-proof her opera—just like the classics that keep being reproduced and reimagined. “We want it to travel,” she says, “to present it again and again.”
“Yeah, exactly. At least!”
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