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A thoroughly modern opera: Robots enter a new frontier

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After a brief prologue, Simon enters The System – and the technological wizardry really takes off, both on stage and off.

As Simon, American baritone James Maddalena (whose credits include originating the title role in the opera "Nixon in China") leaves the stage for a soundproof booth located in the orchestra pit. There he is fitted with sensors that allow him to give what composer Professor Machover calls a "disembodied" performance.

Mr. Maddalena's singing voice, arm movements, arm muscle tension, and breathing rate (via a flexible band around his chest) are captured. This information helps control the onstage movements and lights of three walls, each weighing three tons, that display flashing light patterns, as well as a huge chandelier, all of which are now inhabited by the "essence" of Simon. The stage itself "comes alive" as a character, Machover says.

Machover, who received his musical training at The Juilliard School in New York, combines a live orchestra of 15 human musicians with musical sounds made electronically.

"I've always been intrigued by how to [use] all the wonderful things that technology can do to make delicate, complex, layered sound," he says in a recent interview in his airy office on the fourth floor of the exotic-looking, glass-clad Media Lab building on the MIT campus. "I think of electronics as all the sounds that don't exist in a normal orchestra." He sometimes uses these additional sounds "as glue" between more conventional musical moments, he says.

A sophisticated surround-sound system, created by Machover and his team, many of them students, can put the audience in the middle of the action. When Simon sings from inside The System or his wife goes beneath the chandelier to strum its wires and commune with her disembodied husband, the sounds extend to envelop the audience, making it feel as though it, too, is inside The System, Machover says.

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