Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Alan Turing, The Opera


Last Thursday I attended the world premier of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a new production from Chicago Opera Theater composed by Justine Chen with the libretto (text) from David Simpatico.

The opera takes a mostly chronological trip through his life in seven scenes, focusing less on the computer science and more on Turing's struggle with homosexuality and his prosecution. Turing does fiddle with an old computer throughout the opera. The opera ends with a different take on his death (spoiler alert), where he attempts to upload his consciousness to escape his chemically castrated body. 

Between the scenes, a chorus chants random numbers and words as they floated on a scrim, in what the composer calls "chat clouds". 

These “chat clouds” transport the listeners with a sonic approximation of internet chatter, filled with information that brings them to the next moment. The aural depiction of these "chat clouds" was inspired by the animated movies and television series of Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell. Another sonic influence was Walt Disney’s fantastical Snow White, one of Alan’s greatest obsessions.

I found them reminiscent of the Philip Glass' knee play from Einstein on the Beach. I really enjoyed these sequences, though another academic I ran into during intermission felt otherwise.

Over all I enjoyed the music and the opera, particularly the courtroom scene where Turing gave an impassioned defense though it turns out all in his head. The cast did well across the board, especially Jonathan Michie who sang Turing. 

Librettist David Simpatico (wearing jacking), Composer Justine Chen (in gown)
conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya behind her and Jonathan Michie (in red robe)

One can't help compare this opera to The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, that I saw in Atlanta last year. Both operas chart a metaphysical journey of a computing giant through various important moments of their lives. During a Q&A I asked Simpatico about the two and he said he purposely avoided the Jobs opera so as to not affect how he wrote this one. Probably for the best.

1 comment:

  1. By coincidence, there has been the world premier of another opera about Alan Turing in November in Nuremberg, Germany. By a German composer, Anno Schreier, and (unfortunately) in German.
    I went there in February and I liked it a lot (one probably should like opera, in general, and not be too afraid of 20th century "classical" music, but I think it is quite accessible).
    Here is a YT-link to the introduction by the theater (in German, but english subtitles work well):