How did you come to write this libretto?

Tod Machover, the composer, phoned and invited me to work with him. He had a commission from the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, for a modern opera.

I knew Tod a bit, had heard some of his music and admired it. He’s good at mixing acoustic and electronic sounds, kind of blurring the distinction. (He invented the “hypercello,” which has an electronic pickup on the bow.)
Tod is at mit’s Media Lab. Partly for that reason, his invitation reminded me of working long ago on Mindwheel, the computer text adventure I wrote for Broderbund Software in the eighties, working with a couple of programmers. (I called Mindwheel a game; it was marketed as an “Electronic Novel,” with a hardcover book as the package to hold the old five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disc.) I didn’t know anything about computers, and I don’t know much about opera, but I like trying things that are different. In both cases, my colleagues decided to embrace my inexperience, in hope of getting something fresh.

Did you work with the composer at all, or were you completely independent?

Tod and I discussed many different possible stories, and tried out many different things. It took years. Our original team included the juggler Michael Moschen, a brilliant performer who was going to be a “silent onstage narrator.” That was one of many variations and detours. We also worked with the mit roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, so the idea of robots was in there from the beginning.

We wrote an aria, “Original Response,” that was performed as part of an early presentation in Monte Carlo, years back—that aria, for a soprano, dealt with a completely different story and characters, but it did include a robot. The music Tod composed for the words I wrote (with the title cribbed from Robert Frost’s “The Most of It”) suggested that we might create good work together, following the same simple process: me writing words and Tod then setting them, asking me for a revision here and there for musical purposes. Our director, Diane Paulus, had some suggestions for both of us, too. And we called in Diane’s husband, Randy Weiner, for consultation on story and plot matters.

What effect did collaboration have on the process of writing? How was it different for you?

I found a certain freedom or light-heartedness in writing cadences I knew would be provisional or suggestive, not final. The ultimate pace and rhythm and pitch would be musical, created by Tod. So I was free to experiment with what I wrote: the music would transform it. Any pattern I made, any chiming sounds or contrasts or parallelisms, or linked images, would become something different. Knowing this made me feel something almost like ease, a “what the hell” feeling. At times, trying to hear my characters’ voices as I wrote, I’d think of a musical color or harmony or even a melody—all with a somehow pleasing knowledge that the final work would be quite different from the nonce-music I was imagining. I think that provisional frame of mind introduced a rangy, open-ended quality.

We seem to be obsessed these days with technology. From commercial products to pop culture, you can see technology and humanity (machines and meat, as you have it) beginning to merge. Could you talk about Death and the Powers in this context?

I’m interested in how arts involve, and in some sense are, technologies: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,” says W.C. Williams in his introduction to The Wedge. The word “robot,” we’re told, comes from a Czech word meaning “forced labor” or “one made to work” or “drudge”—from a play by Karel Ĉapek. So a work of art originated robots!

We say (as I just did) a “work” of art: that is, an arrangement of breath or sounds or images or materials that does something. The characters or voices or sounds or pictures move us, as actual human souls move us. Keats made “Ode to a Nightingale,” and what he made, that exact arrangement of the sounds and meanings of English words, works to give me emotion. The “Ode” is a machine in Williams’s terms.

We are the art-making animal: projecting ourselves into painted objects or masked dances, or songs, or gardens, or computer games. And into terrible weapons and torture devices, too. Our works, our machines, our robots, made of metal, plastic, colors, plants, the sounds of instruments or of words.

Our contemporary fascination with technology, and our fear of it as well, hark back to deep elements in our nature and history. An interesting cultural fact I became aware of while working on the libretto is the difference between different national cultures and the way they tend to see robots. American pop narratives (with exceptions) tend to see the robots as sinister, taking over. Japanese pop narratives (with exceptions) are more utopian, tend to see the robots as helpful and benign. Presumably, such things tell more about culture than they do about robots.
In the libretto, I try to recognize such hopes and fears without merely subsiding into a stereotype. I hope the robots who stage the play-within-a-play that is the main action have some sympathetic depth to them, at least a little comedy and pathos.

That leads us to ask about the tone of the work and how much control you have over the final product. It’s quite possible that one director could make the opera very dark and another could do it almost as comedy, or at least with a comedic element. It seems very elastic in that way. How do you see it, and are you at all worried about the outcome?  

The “outcome” for me, in an important way, is here in the pages of Poetry. The actual sung and performed opera—that is a composer’s medium, not a writer’s! Death and the Powers has been well cast: James Maddalena, for example, a superb singer and actor, in the role of Simon. But what it will be on stage is a matter of Tod’s work, and Diane’s. It also depends on our superb set designer, Alex McDowell: an example of Alex’s brilliance is his design work for the movie Minority Report. I’m sure I will have some highs, and some regrets, as well. I already regret that the robots will not be sheer creations of Alex’s imagination; but mit is involved, so alas, we will have real robots—likely to be much less impressive, and less expressive, than fake robots could have been.

Mainly, I’ve written the words. My work is done, and I am looking forward to what the artists I admire, Tod and Diane and Alex and the singers, will do—with no illusion that I can control or determine what will be onstage!

The use of poetry in the libretto is striking, not simply because the choices are sometimes unexpected (May Swenson!), but also because it’s not easy to tell what the moral aspect of poetry is. The Yeats and Swenson poems seem to present antithetical ideas about the body and artifice, time and eternity. Simon is a bit mad and self-obsessed, and yet one of the most beautiful parts of the libretto is his “song” opening scene two. Could you talk a little about this?

Great dramatic artists like Shakespeare and Verdi (and John Ford and Akira Kurosawa) have created eloquently expressive monsters. Tentatively, with a lot more confidence in my lyrical ability than my dramatic ability, I tried to make Simon Powers’s words a poetic reflection of his radically defective character. In his first words, before his transformation, he quotes Yeats and then immediately sneers at Yeats—in a video of one scene presented in Monte Carlo, when Jimmy Maddalena sings the words—

Ah, the immortal William Yeats!
He can have his bird.
Yeats, I give you the bird!

—he actually flips a middle finger! I don’t know if that was his idea or Diane’s, but it is appropriate to the mingled intelligence and crudeness of the character. That’s scene one, when he is introduced as a sort of charismatic bully.

But in scene two, I had to write a song for a particular human soul that is taking leave of his own body. He is frightened and exhilarated, incoherent, and keeps telling himself, “I am the same.” But he must feel doubt that he can be “the same,” be himself, when he has no body. (A central idea in Swenson’s poem.)

Miranda? Evvy? The names seem suspiciously allusive—to The Tempest and Genesis, that is, two works about would-be, all-controlling creators. What is your intention here?

As I remember, at one point I became a bit timid about calling the character “Miranda,” and wanted to retreat from that . . . and both Tod and Diane vetoed the idea. They were probably right. (I do have an Aunt Evvy.)

Was this a one-off for you, or can you see yourself writing another libretto or perhaps a verse play? Why are these forms so rarely attempted by contemporary poets?

Well, maybe not so rare: J.D. McClatchy has written many successful librettos, with more on the way, I’d guess. I’ve heard rumors of a Paul Muldoon project. Anne Carson does things for performers, and Michael Palmer has created works for dancers. Seamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy comes to mind. Years ago, I sat next to Seamus at a stage performance in New York, based on my Inferno translation, and he spoke wistfully about creating a stage work based on linked folk songs and parlor songs.

As to verse plays—for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in DC, I’ve completed the first draft of an adaptation/translation project. In blank verse! A bit early to tell what it will amount to, but the actors are about to begin trying out scenes.


This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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