A view of Akra - the painting industrial robot, Source: Forum Stadtpark Graz

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

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

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

On 5 August, an opera production with robots premiered in the Forum Stadtpark cultural centre of Graz.  The opera is titled “Nessun Dorma”, after the famous aria in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. Thea Hoffmann-Axthelm, Elsa-Sophie Jach and Markus Schubert composed the piece, whereas financing came through the Graz Culture Year 2020 initiative.

It tells the story of industrial robot Akra – programmed to be a painter, and the chaotic self-made vacuum bot – Putzini. The piece is about love, death, artificial intelligence and longing - asking viewers to empathise with machines. The robot opera combines these topics.

An aria of longing and death

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

Like in any good dramatic opera, the two develop a relationship that contains love and suffering, betrayal and separation. When the relationship fails, Putzini learns to compose his own arias of death through a complex neural network.

The interaction of the two robots combines emotional-philosophical reflection and digital science with the operatic genre and tells a story of emotions. Love has always appeared in stories as a motif that enriches a character’s humanity. It tempers rage and greed, melts a cold heart and pushes characters towards reaching further: whether it is Romeo and Juliet or Wall-E.

So, this is what also motivates the robot Putzini. Is it then too strange to empathise with a machine?

Behind the scenes

It took the team three years to make this project a reality. Markus Schubert, the ‘creative technologist’ behind the work elaborated on the robots’ interactions, saying that the team programmed a set of basic rehearsed motions, including movement, painting or dancing.

When the robots move and how these movements interact, however, is up to chance. Thea Hoffman-Axthelm, the set designer, explained that the team does not know exactly when and how the robots will move and what those movements will be.

At the same time, they put in specific triggers for the robots to look at each other, but the team was often surprised when the machines did it in a particularly noticeable or appropriate way. The idea was to make them look spontaneous - like two people in a love game.

In addition to the elaborately programmed robots, the essence of the project is artificial intelligence (AI) because the actual aria of death at the end of the piece was composed by an AI.

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



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