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10 Years in the Making, New Alan Turing Opera by Justine F. Chen Arrives in Timely Retelling

Content warning: suicide

Known as the father of modern computing, Alan Turing was an English scientist with a tragically short life. On March 23 and 25, his story will hit the operatic stage with the world premiere of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, commissioned by American Lyric Theater and staged by Chicago Opera Theater. The new opera by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico has been 10 years in the making. The idea of adapting Turing’s life into an opera came from Simpatico, who introduced Chen to his story. “I didn’t really know anything about Turing at that time,” Chen said in an interview. “It was 2012, and Turing wasn’t as well-known as he is now. But David told me about him: that he was a war hero, brilliant, the father of computer science, a mathematician, and chemically castrated by his own country for being homosexual, and then he commits suicide: that sounded like an opera.”

Chen and Simpatico met in 2010 as members of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, the only full-time professional mentorship program for operatic writers in the U.S. The tuition-free initiative provides training and hands-on workshops with some of the country’s leading working artists. “We would have biweekly meetings, and mentors introducing basic building blocks of opera,” Chen recalls. “[The composers and librettists] would get paired off, kind of like a quick dating event, where you get to know what the process is and see what the chemistry is like emotionally and artistically.”

Chen was initially struck by Simpatico’s playfulness, imagination, creativity, and his “deep humanity as a human being,” she said. “We got on well, but I was not paired with him. About a year later, American Lyric Theater approached me and asked if I would be interested in being commissioned for an opera. So I said Yes, of course, but I definitely needed to choose my librettist.”

David Simpatico -- Photo courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater

David Simpatico — Photo courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater

Simpatico devised seven different possibilities for a libretto. To Lawrence Edelson, the founding artistic director of American Lyric Theater, the Turing story sounded like a project perfectly suited for the duo.

Chen grew up listening to opera; her mother is an enthusiastic fan of the art form. But her influences as an opera composer are not the productions she attended with her mother; they’re films, TV, and plays — particularly from the sci-fi genre.

“Turing was basically living in a dystopian world. His persecution and death sounds like something that shouldn’t happen in our time, something in a terrible future, but it happened in his lifetime. So I think there’s an element of sci-fi, traveling back and forth in time. There are seven memories from his life between different periods. He’s 17, then 27, then 31 — he’s just jumping forward in time. So to help the audience, we have these interstitial moments brought together.”

Chen and Simpatico devised the idea of a chat room or word cloud that represents the next scene, realized through a choral texture that’s spoken and sometimes sung in a way that highlights specific words. These transitions guide the audience through the seven vignettes from Turing’s life, culminating in the opera’s “fantastical philosophical ending,” set to techno-electronic sounds.

Chicago Opera Theater cast of "The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing" at the Museum of Science and Industry German U-Boat exhibit. Enigma machines courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum, NSA -- Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Chicago Opera Theater cast of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” at the Museum of Science and Industry German U-Boat exhibit. Enigma machines courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum, NSA — Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Chen drew additional inspiration from the Japanese animation series Ghost in the Shell. “It’s really like cyberpunk dystopian,” she said. “I discovered I was a little bit addicted to it and I couldn’t figure out why. I realized later it was because the music and the sound design were so delicious for my ears. I couldn’t stop listening to it.”

Her operatic ideas often arise from her obsessions. “It’s just something that I can’t stop thinking about,” she said. “Because I never guessed this particular opera would take 10 years. You really have to love it, to keep going back to it and keep making it better and better.”

There was a time when Chen could hardly envision having one of her operas staged. “When I first started writing operas, it was just something that I did as an experiment to see if I could do it… The way my career was going, I knew there was the possibility that a major work of mine would never get performed.

“So I decided I may as well try something else that I want, to see what could happen. Almost every opera is an experiment for me. What if I did this? How would this work? How can I make this clear for the audience? How can I dramatize this moment most effectively? You have to have fun, and it’s whatever obsesses you, whatever you can’t stop thinking of — those are the things that you are going to be willing to tend to for such a long period, with all of your composer soul, your creator soul.”

Jonathan Michie as Alan Turing in rehearsal -- Photo by Michael Brosilow

Jonathan Michie as Alan Turing in rehearsal — Photo by Michael Brosilow

Despite all the careful planning, unexpected moments of discovery still happen in rehearsal when Chen sees the performers interpreting their parts for the first time. In Chicago Opera Theater’s presentation of “Turing,” some of the singers play multiple roles. Bass baritone David Salsbery Fry represents an oppressive establishment figure. In rehearsal, he gave each of his characters their own dialect, even though it isn’t specified in the score. But Chen found it so delightful that she encouraged him to include it in his performance.

Because composers are largely in control of the musical pacing, operatic actors are often robbed of these types of interpretive decisions, Chen says. Interestingly, she credits old radio plays by Jack Benny and George Burns as inspiration for her skillful use of timing. “There’s a lot of timing in communication of information. I wondered if composers could create a performance with the use of silence,” she said. “There are a lot of moments of silence [in this opera], and for me [those moments ask]: What’s happening in this silence? What’s happening in this pause between this first utterance and the next?”

Ultimately, the performers astound Chen each time they perform her music, she said. Chicago Opera Theater’s world premiere run of “Turing” is no exception.

“When everyone brings their talents to fill and exceed my music, it just makes this incredible explosion of artistic endeavors… I feel like I have pretty good ideas, but when someone brings everything else to their performance — their whole world to it — then it’s just so exciting.”


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