In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself." The operative emotion in tragedy, he explains, is the strangely pleasurable mix of pity and fear we feel for the protagonist, whose dramatic rise and fall, driven by a character flaw, gives the form its arc. That character must be relatable to the audience; if he or she is all good or all evil, then there is no sense of connection.
The concept of tragedy is at the heart of THE_OPER& ("The Operand"), a new opera by Duke University professors John Supko and Bill Seaman that has its world premiere this week. The two describe the work as a "meta-tragedy" or a "tragedy of tragedy." Supko characterizes it as "playing with the Aristotelian machinery of tragedy or drama, but not being specific about it."
To achieve that abstract distance, they take Aristotle's elements of tragedy and blow them apart, so that the elements become subject of the work instead of the tale of a specific character.
THE_OPER& doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense. There are no zany capers, no dramatic confrontations, no deep investigations of love or loss, and no discrete characters. Instead, the work is built around the cyclical creation and destruction of worlds at the hands of an omniscient computer, voiced by Seaman. Four times over the course of the opera, the computer, in conversation with the Lorelei Ensemble—a Boston-based all-woman vocal ensemble—wills a sound-and-video world into being, only to watch it fall apart in a grand cataclysm.
"The drama is, 'How is the world going to turn out this time? How is it going to fall apart this time?,'" says Jim Findlay, the opera's director. Each randomly generated world is unique, with its own peccadillos, so each collapses into noise and disorder in its own distinctive way.
The computer is more than just a character. It's an equal partner in the creative process. While Supko and Seaman determined the overall architecture of the work, the computer's algorithms make all the moment-to-moment decisions, selecting which videos to show on the four screens that line the stage, which texts the computer speaks, and which section of Anna Barker's choreography the singers will perform.
"Imagine if, at every decision point in an opera, there were between twenty and a hundred possibilities," Supko says. "You have this constellation of possible outcomes and the meaning changes."
The only element that's physically embodied on the stage is the Lorelei Ensemble, whose singing serves as the scaffold everything else swirls around. Thus, no two performances will ever be same.
Supko and Seaman spent three years constructing the sonic, textual, and video databases that make up the work and determining its overall form. With the computer's help, they generated piles of texts, selecting ones they liked and tweaking the algorithm to create more in that vein. They did something similar for various musical elements, in a process Seaman calls "re-embodied intelligence" as opposed to wholly artificial intelligence.
"You take the sensibility of a person writing and then abstract that so that the computer can take on that role," Seaman says. "I describe it is as loading the dice."
With all these layers of abstraction, it would be easy for THE_OPER& to devolve into a high-concept morass of free-floating ideas and wordplay for its own sake. But the form of tragedy serves as a rudder.
The title has a double meaning: it implies that this is something beyond opera, but "operand" is also a mathematical term for the thing an operation is being performed upon. In this case, that thing is the concept of a tragedy. Interest doesn't come from the tension of a tragic figure getting his or her comeuppance; instead, it grows from the knowledge of uncertainty—of the sense that anything could happen, and nobody, not even the people who created the work, has any idea what it will be. Knowledge of the opera's abstractions and the structures that underlie them becomes the subject and source of tension and pleasure.
There's a moment in a recent This American Life episode about magic when Penn and Teller are developing a new trick built around the mysterious motion of a ball on an invisible string. In its original conception, their illusion was pretty but abstract. Only when they made one aspect of the process apparent, telling the audience that it was a piece about a ball on a string, did the piece suddenly become meaningful to those watching.
THE_OPER& is after a similar sense of knowing magic. Supko talks about those moments in the theater where all the actors and stage crew align and something amazing happens. Even its creators aren't quite sure how all of THE_OPER&'s conceptual pieces will fit together.
"What we're interested in is that magical serendipity happening with the agency of the computer but without anyone sitting in the back of the hall intending for it to happen or preplanning anything," Supko says.
For all of its lofty concepts and algorithmic approaches, its blurred lines between man and machine, THE_OPER& should have such magic in abundance.