In a time when apocalypse and destruction have evolved from speculative notions to frightening realities, it has become necessary to view modern works on the subject through a new lens. The stories of thermonuclear warfare and unending war have gained a distressing degree of relevance, affecting the manner in which these stories must be told in order for them to have the same impact on a dually jaded and terrified contemporary audience. Presenting these topics through computers and technology — entities that are equally feared for their ability to automate so much of our natural world — might seem like a counterintuitive decision, but there are no two artists as well-equipped to succeed with this vision as John Supko and Bill Seaman. These Duke professors and renowned artists have partnered together to create “THE_OPER&,” an opera about apocalypse and renewal generated by a sophisticated computer system.

“The concepts that are explored are quite topical, yet are explored in a meta-manner,” explained Bill Seaman, a professor in the Art, Art History and Visual Studies department and co-creator and narrator of the opera. “We are creating a tragedy of tragedies: a system that points at tragedy and also points back at itself in a self-reflexive manner.”

Seaman delved into the use of computers as both a theme within the project and a creative vessel for the opera. He noted that “Singularity” — a time when computers will become autonomous learning systems — could perhaps take place within our lifetime.

“To many this is deeply frightening and there have been many dystopian movies related to the topic,” he said. “Yet I am deeply moved by the creative potentials of the computer, of our ability to both author programs that become a vehicle of our creativity, and collaborate with the potentials that computers empower. So this work becomes quite self-reflexive about both the creative power and dynamic beauty that computers can enable, while simultaneously considering what the ‘singularity’ might mean to us as a human-made tragedy. … The work presents a set of unique questions that I hope will trigger deep thought about computation and what it means to our lives.”

In addition to the innovation of this project, the venue it will occupy is also a new, inventive space. “THE_OPERA&” will premiere in the recently-opened Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater. The theater takes up two floors of the center and is outfitted with multiple screens, creating a more dynamic, immersive viewing experience for the 200 audience members it can seat. Seaman expressed excitement about this new space and its inventive structure, especially in terms of its potential to inspire other artists and students.

“We are excited by the space and the open potentials it presents,” Seaman said. “We will be using it in a very unique manner, with multiple synchronized screens, and generative music that is directly  tied to the imagery. ... It is an honor to present such a work in this new theater that will empower many creative productions to come. The video will be handled in a exciting and creative manner that will transform the space into a shifting dynamic poetic landscape of landscapes.”

The von der Heyden Studio also allows the audience to interact more closely with the performances presented to them. Having a larger space and several screens to work with allows for more creative freedom and creates an immersive experience that will undoubtedly make this live opera all the more impactful.

“The von der Heyden Studio Theater provides all of the theatrical technology that this piece — and a great deal of forward-thinking art employ — while also providing a relatively intimate audience experience,” said Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances. “So there are sufficient tools and space for the artists to make ambitious work but also the opportunity for audiences to see that work up close.” 

It may be frightening to think at length about themes like apocalypse and the ubiquity of technology, especially considering the current political and social climate, but “THE_OPER&” seems to have a more optimistic, introspective perspective on these ideas that will spark thoughtful conversations. Seaman was hopeful about the employment of technology to prompt discussions about its use. 

“The work becomes a space that will trigger associations and thoughts that students might not so often explore,” Seaman said. “It may stimulate many conversations about computers, and the times we live in. … Computers are open systems that can bring to life aspects of our imagination. They can become a vehicle for our creative nature.”