MIT Music and Theater Arts, and Guerilla Opera present the world premiere of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Elena Ruehr’s new comedic new opera imagines that Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, the true-life unsung inventors of the first computer, use their brilliant new invention to “fight crime” in alternative universes. The libretto comes from the Pulitzer-prize winning Royce Vavrek, who adapted it from the New York Times best-selling graphic novel by Sydney Padua. Giselle Ty serves as stage director.
The show runs from Friday and Saturday, February 3 and February 4, 2022 at 7:30PM to Saturday and Sunday, February 4 and February 5, 2022 at 3:00PM in the MIT Theater Arts Building W97 Black Box Theater, which is making its own opera debut. Tickets HERE.
FLE: Tell us the creation story please.
ER: It was sometime in the spring of 2015. I was cooking dinner while listening to NPR when I heard Sydney Padua come on to talk about her new graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. So I read Sydney’s book and fell madly in love. I emailed Sydney’s agent about the idea and happily, she wrote back saying she was a big opera fan and would love to collaborate. I had wanted to work with Royce Vavrek on this and was very happy indeed that he signed on. Sydney is collaborating with us and supplying us with visual imagery.
Stage director Giselle Ty: Do you use any of the graphic imagery from the novel? And please tell us something stagecraft. Costumes? Scenery? Projections? Effects?
GT: You will definitely see some of Sydney Padua’s work in select moments of the production. We, of course, found the graphic novel to be an incredible resource, not only for its imagery and humor, but also for the well-curated historical anecdotes and footnotes that helped us fall in love with the dynamic duo of Lovelace and Babbage.
Her work is brilliant on so many levels, and it was a fun challenge to bring in the zany energy and multi-layered wit of the genre of the graphic novel into a theatrical space.
I think we are all delighted by the characters of graphic novels because they don’t have to follow the laws of time and physics like human bodies do. They can move through extreme emotions and situations from one frame to the next.
In order to capture that feel, I have worked with the singers a lot on physicality and movement. We are also collaborating with three dancers to bring the world and some of Babbage’s beautiful inventions to life. Watching dancers is exhilarating to me because they hear music differently than singers and instrumentalists do. They shape phrases and find dynamic pulses inside the music that sit underneath what is notated.
The opera consists of four adventures and another challenge we set for ourselves was to give each episode its own aesthetic and design parameters. We use color very deliberately and are also very purposeful about how the projections support the visual language. Since we spend more and more time interacting with screens in our daily lives, I wanted the projections to feel as visceral, sensual, and playful as the rest of our theatrical elements. Ideally, they would be able to breathe and move with the music like dancers do.
FLE: Charles Babbage, the eccentric inventor of the “Difference Engine,” conceived an enormous clockwork calculating machine that would have been the first computer, if he had ever finished it. But others finished it and its sounds feature in your work. How relentless will that engine sound? Steampunk?
ER: The computer-generated sounds are actually not as present as you might think—they take the place of some percussion sounds.
If this had been a historical opera, it would have had a lot of dialog. Using their brilliant new invention to “fight crime in alternative universes” as a dramatic engine for a comic opera seems to take a flying departure from the historical accounts. How do the history characters and situations get transformed? How comic?
This is a VERY FUNNY show, bordering on musical theater in its blend of dance, movement, singing and etc. (there is no spoken dialogue). The transformation from historical characters to a fantasy world is done after the relatively factual (but funny) first 20 minutes, then the fantasy begins. The transformation takes place through the magic of theater!
How do you score alternative universes from within the best of all possible worlds?
Oh it’s very fun. In this case I used harmonies based on a whole tone scale plus one extraneous note that I think is rather funny. Whole tone scales are rather funny to be honest.
Would your music sound different if it were for a biopic?
Oh certainly. I have written two other historical operas “Toussaint Before the Spirits” and “Crafting the Bonds” and they were quite serious. In this case I use a lot of references to dance music and lighthearted rhythmic motives.
Will this sound more like your Cosmic Cowboy?
Only insofar as I wrote it. It’s a smaller cast, and a smaller orchestra, really a chamber opera. And it is quite lighthearted, so the feel is rather different.
First tastes of Building W97?
GT: It is an exciting opportunity to have MIT students, contemporary opera-goers, and fans of Sydney Padua’s graphic novel all under one roof!
I also find it refreshing that Elena Ruehr’s opera links up a large institution like M.I.T. with members of smaller, local arts organizations like Guerrilla Opera and Boston Dance Theater. I would hope that there are more opportunities for collaborations like this, so that the city’s different bubbles, large and small, find ways to overlap, collide, and make something unexpected!
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
February 3-5 at MIT Building W97
Elena Ruhr, composer
Story by Sydney Padua
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
Giselle Ty, stage director.
Cast: Aliana de la Guardia as Ada Lovelace, Aaron Engebreth as Charles Babbage, with Omar Najimi as Lord Byron, Erin Matthews as the Queen of England.
Instrumentalists: Rane Moore (clarinet), Lilit Hartunian (violin), Stephen Marotto (cello), Mike Williams (percussion)
Crew: Rebecca Shannon Butler (Costume Designer), Keithlyn B. Parkman (Lighting and Scenic Designer), and Nuozhou Wang (Video Projections Designer).
The world premiere opera is set to travel as a concert performance to the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Hancock, MI in June 2023, and the full theatrical production to Michigan Technological University in October 2023.
According to Wiki: Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea about the Analytical Engine, supplementing it with an elaborate set of notes, simply called “Notes”. Lovelace’s notes are important in the early history of computers, containing what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Other historians reject this perspective and point out that Babbage’s personal notes from the years 1836/1837 contain the first programs for the engine. She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities. Her mindset of “poetical science” led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.
Guerilla Opera’s Notes:
“Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar protoprogrammer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines.
But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.”
And a digression:
“Ada Lovelace was a mathematician, gambler, and proto-programmer, whose writings contained the first ever appearance of general computing theory.” Maybe not entirely surprisingly, considering her father, Lord Byron’s philandering, there is a connection with the porn star (apparently forced at gunpoint by an abusive husband) Linda Lovelace According to John Markoff, “The computer processing coordination system Linda was named after Linda Lovelace. This name choice was inspired by the programming language Ada.