Pinksy and Machover Bring Shadow and Light to NCAC Event
I should admit up front that I have very little personal experience when it comes to the opera – when I was 10 my family took a trip to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and sometime during that trip we all went to a performance of something or other at the Glimmerglass Opera, which was located nearby. I think I liked it, but other than that, the opera and I have not had occasion to cross paths. Still, I found myself sitting fairly entranced in a theater earlier this week as I watched two short video clips from the opening performance of a new opera which will be coming to Boston in the spring, entitled “Death and the Powers: The Robot’s Opera,” by MIT Professor and musician Tod Machover, with a libretto written by nationally-acclaimed poet, Professor Robert Pinsky. From what the creators said and what I saw, the opera focuses on the egomaniacal dream of a dying millionaire who seeks to gain electronic immortality as his physical body is dying. Since I enjoy brooding meditations on the nature of mortality as well as almost anything involving sci-fi, I was intrigued right away.
This was my first time attending an event organized by the New Center for Arts and Culture (NCAC) and I found the evening of poetry, music and conversation to be quite engaging. Joining the two artists on the stage was a third, in the role of moderator, namely Professor Lloyd Schwartz, whose own resume includes a Pulitzer Prize for his work as classical music critic at the Boston Phoenix. I have been hearing about the work of the NCAC for a while, and I must admit that my first experience there did indeed measure up to the high praise they have been receiving. I was impressed with the way the evening offered an inviting space at the intersection of art, culture and Judaism.
One of the reasons I think I enjoyed the program so much was that there was an obvious level of enthusiasm that Professors Pinksy and Machover brought to their description not only of the creative evolution of this particular project, but how it touched on other themes and ideas in their own work. One question that Professor Schwartz asked was what, if any, role Jewish ideas play in the opera itself as well as within their own respective individual work. Professor Machover said he needed to think more about how to answer the question, and professor Pinsky noted that while the characters are not identified as Jewish, that the leading figure, the one who desires to live on forever in a digital form, has a number of Yiddishisms in his speech. This was a question I found particularly intriguing, because I often think about how Jewish ideas and the experiences I have had in the Jewish community influence the work I do in other areas: teaching college writing, for example, or writing nature poetry. It is a question without an easy answer and my sense is that whatever answer one might come up with is mercurial at best, bound to change with time and context.
What Professor Pinsky and Professor Machover did at the NCAC event was so powerful because they invited us not just into the creative process behind the opera, but in some way, into the world of the opera itself. In hearing Professor Pinsky read from his libretto, the characters came alive, present in an appropriately disembodied way, in hearing the mix of instruments and voices that emerged from the darkened theatre, in seeing the performers interact with each other and the strangely human robots that share the stage with the human actors, I found myself pulled into a world where the dividing line between life and death had been blurred by a digital hand, where the gulf between flesh and circuits seemed not so far apart.
As I drove home I found myself thinking that perhaps I will have to make a second trip to the opera when it is staged in Boston, and I certainly plan to attend future events sponsored by the NCAC. I think it will be very interesting to see how this relatively new Jewish cultural institution changes and evolves over time, especially once more Bostonians discover this amazing resource within our community.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2010. This piece originally appeared on the New Vilna Review website.