Robots perform opera in Graz, asking audience to sympathize with the machines

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Robots perform opera in Graz, asking audience to sympathize with the machines

Nessun Dorma is a play that tells the story of love, betrayal and longing … but in a non-human form

On August 5, an opera production with robots premiered at the Forum Stadtpark cultural center in Graz. The opera is called “Nessun Dorma”, after the famous aria from the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. Thea Hoffmann-Axthelm, Elsa-Sophie Jach and Markus Schubert composed the piece, while funding came from the Graz Culture Year 2020 initiative.

It tells the story of the industrial robot Akra – programmed to be a painter, and the self-made chaotic vacuum robot – Putzini. The play is about love, death, artificial intelligence and nostalgia – asking viewers to empathize with the machines. The robotic opera combines these subjects.

An air of nostalgia and death

Arka is an elegant industrial robot, reprogrammed to be an artist. He paints in a gallery while listening to a cassette of opera arias from death scenes. One night, Arka meets Putzini, a chaotic robot vacuum cleaner made by him.

As in any good dramatic opera, the two develop a relationship that contains love and suffering, betrayal and separation. When the relationship breaks down, Putzini learns to compose his own death tunes through a complex neural network.

The interaction of the two robots combines emotional-philosophical thinking and digital science with lyrical genre and tells a story of emotions. Love has always appeared in stories as a motive that enriches the humanity of a character. He tempers rage and greed, melts a cold heart and pushes the characters to go further: be it Romeo and Juliet or Wall-E.

This is what also motivates the Putzini robot. Is it then too strange to sympathize with a machine?

In the wings

It took the team three years to bring this project to fruition. Markus Schubert, the “creative technologist” behind the work, explained the interactions of the robots, saying the team had programmed a set of repeated basic movements, including movement, painting or dancing.

However, when robots move and how those movements interact, it depends on chance. Thea Hoffman-Axthelm, the set designer, explained that the team doesn’t know exactly when and how the robots will move and what those movements will be.

At the same time, they set up specific triggers for the robots to look at each other, but the team were often surprised when the machines did so in a particularly visible or appropriate way. The idea was to make them seem spontaneous – like two people in a love game.

In addition to the carefully programmed robots, the essence of the project is artificial intelligence (AI) because the air of death at the end of the play was composed by an AI.

Director Elsa-Sophie Jach is adamant that this is a relevant dramatic piece, as robots tell a story of love, betrayal, disappointment and self-expression, with one big question looming: is a robot capable of being artistic?


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