After years of having his name associated with electronic music, "hyperinstruments" and "opera" in its most untraditional sense, Professor Tod Machover's new opera, Resurrection, premiering April 23 at the Houston Grand Opera, marks a new step for the Media Lab composer.
While the orchestration of the piece will be "electronically enhanced," Professor Machover says his goal has been to keep the work unamplified, implying a very different production than his computer-interactive, multimedia Brain Opera (1996) or his science fiction video-opera Valis (1987).
"Over the past few years, I've gotten incredibly tired of loudspeakers and amplification," he told Opera News recently. "One thing I'm trying to experiment with in Resurrection is bringing technology to the level of good acoustic sound."
Based on Leo Tolstoy's final novel, with a libretto written by Laura Harrington (a lecturer in music and theater arts who teaches play-writing), Resurrection is a story of spiritual renewal amid the corrupt institutions of a decadent society. The story traces the fate of a Russian prince called as a juror for the trial of a prostitute who proves to be the servant girl he set on the road to ruin.
"The opera is meant as a call to action, to make the world a better place," said Professor Machover, whose ancestors came from Russia and who has long found Tolstoy "the most inspiring, most complex and most truthful of all novelists."
Resurrection marks the first time that Professor Machover has collaborated with MIT colleague Ms. Harrington, an award-winning playwright whose plays and musicals have been produced regionally, off-Broadway and in Canada.
"I always imagined Resurrection as a work which would sit comfortably in a traditional opera house... and speak directly and immediately to opera lovers while not being 'conventional' in the negative sense," says Professor Machover.
While the score calls for a traditional orchestra and unamplified voices, the orchestration employs special sound-shaping devices built by his team at the Media Lab: a custom software environment created to change the electronic sonorities of three live keyboard players, and a "multimodal mixer" which Professor Machover said will "enable all of the sounds and layers of the opera to be controlled with an intuitive gesture language using the left hand," while the other hand is either playing keyboard notes or controlling sound transformation devices.
But while Professor Machover's background in electronic music will be evident to those who listen closely, his hope is that the electronics will be "subtle and sophisticated enough to blend almost imperceptibly with the physical, acoustic presence of instruments and voices."
Even more important, it seems, is his hope that Resurrection will "draw people to consider the higher goals and simple truths that Tolstoy reminds us of so powerfully -- and that are so often buried or forgotten in our hectic, complicated lives.
"My music has always been about human possibility and transformation," he said. "I want this piece to be about how one's own personal growth could have -- must have -- a powerfully positive effect on other people and on the whole world."
Resurrection runs at the Houston Grand Opera through May 7.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).