Posted September 18, 2013

Robot opera results from art and science collaboration

Joseph V. Labolito


First there was opera. Then there was rock opera. Now, two Temple faculty members are giving the world robot opera.

Three research robots will join five singers and a chorus to present "Galatea_Reset" for three 90-minute performances in Temple’s Conwell Dance Theater on Sept. 20-21.

The autonomous robots will produce all of the music and sounds as well as portray characters in the lyrical theater production.

A collaborative work between Maurice Wright, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Music Composition in the Boyer College of Music and Dance, and Rolf Lakaemper, associate professor of computer and information sciences in the College of Science and Technology, "Galatea_Reset" tells the mythological story of sculptor Pygmalion, who falls in love with his creation Galatea only to have her brought to life for him by the Goddess Venus.

Wright and Lakaemper have been discussing ways of working collaboratively since meeting at a faculty reception a decade ago and discovering they had similar interests — Wright in computer science, Lakaemper in music.

Two years ago, they were awarded a grant from the Temple Commission on the Arts for new collaborations between the sciences and the creative arts and have spent the past year-and-a-half developing their robot opera.

“For Rolf and me it has been an interesting experiment in combining computer music with ways of networking computer music with laptops and speakers and then being able to move those pieces from place-to-place,” said Wright, a pioneer in computer-generated music. “From there we jumped into using robots as characters, and then it just turned into a full-fledged opera theater piece.”

Wright wrote most of the composition for "Galatea_Reset" using an open source computer music programming language called Pure Data, which allows the robots to create music as well as sounds. Lakaemper, whose research is in rescue robots, wrote a Java program that controls the robots’ on-stage movements.

The two programs are overlapped and sent from a control station to each of the robots, which are equipped with a laptop computer and speakers. This combined program tells the robots where to go, what sounds to produce, and when.

“With this project, I think we had a challenge as difficult on the scientific and engineering side as it was on the creative arts side,” said Lakaemper, himself is a musician who plays the drums and piano, who contributed about five minutes of the musical score.

Wright said they didn’t want their robots to look like cartoon robots or Star Wars robots, in portraying the characters Galatea, Acis and Polyphemus, so they will be dressed in costumes designed by Sandra James, systems support specialist and webmaster in the Boyer College.

“I’m pretty certain the audience will think of these robots as characters, because the music fits together very nicely with their costumes and movements,” said Lakaemper.
Excluding the robots, the performances will be an all-Temple affair, with Boyer College alumni John McCarthy and Melissa Mino playing the roles of Pygmalion and Galatea2, and undergraduate Isabella Nicole Ness playing Venus. The chorus, made up of members of the Temple University Singers, will be under the direction of Mitos Andaya, associate professor of choral activities.

Performances will be Friday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 21, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., in the Conwell Dance Theater, fifth floor of Conwell Hall, North Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and students with ID, $10 for Temple employees and DanceUSA pass holders and $5 for Temple students with an Owlcard. Tickets can be purchased at the Liacouras Center box office (cash only), online at the Liacouras Center website, or by calling 800-298-4200.