After a promising Chicago workshop performance four years ago, Chicago Opera Theater’s The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing returned for a two-performance world premiere at the Harris Theater last week, conducted by COT music director Lidiya Yankovskaya. It’s a gut-wrenching piece in a well-crafted production, with two major themes that couldn’t be more contemporary: the LGBTQ+ struggle for justice and our rapidly evolving relationship with artificial intelligence.
Turing, a lifelong “eccentric” (likely dealing with something like Asperger’s syndrome), was a pioneering English mathematician and computer scientist, a father of AI, and the key player in cracking the German military code in WWII—a feat that saved untold lives and helped to end the war. He was also gay at a time when homosexual relationships were illegal in Britain. A few short years after his then still-secret heroism, the country he had served so well arrested and prosecuted him for consensual homosexual activity. (In a scene with pointed contemporary relevance, a call he made to police to report that he’d been the victim of a theft resulted only in his own arrest.) To avoid a hard-labor prison sentence, he underwent chemical castration. Two years later he bit into an apparently poisoned apple and died—an assumed suicide at the age of 41. Yes, he’d been a fan of Disney’s Snow White.
A program note by composer Justine F. Chen points out that the opera “presents Alan at seven different moments in life.” The transitions between those moments are signaled by what she calls “chat clouds”—“a sonic approximation of internet chatter” that makes inventive use of the chorus and of the visual projections that are an important part of the set. I’m not a big fan of the now commonplace use of projections as set components (or substitutes), but in this production—directed by Peter Rothstein, with scenic design that evokes the digital world by architect Benjamin Olsen, and projections by Anthony Churchill—they are astutely employed.
Ditto for the chorus, often seated above the action, commenting and participating in it. Chen’s orchestral and choral music is, by turns, innovative and lyrical, and the rest of her vocal score—which, like much of new opera, leans into recitative—is dramatic. Baritone Jonathan Michie fully projects Turing’s social awkwardness and his emotional pain (sharply drawn by librettist David Simpatico); tenor Joseph Leppek is his loyal boyhood friend and abiding love—lost to tuberculosis in his late teens. Soprano Teresa Castillo is Turing’s flummoxed mother, Sara; and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven delivers a warmly sung performance as Joan Clarke, the colleague who loved him and who, in this telling, offered him the refuge of an open marriage, which he rejected.
The second act struck me as too long in the workshop performance and still seems long, flirting with anticlimax as it lingers over Turing’s imagined posthumous transmigration into an ecstatic digital eternity where he’s reunited with Christopher. But Turing anticipated the mind-machine meld that—nearly 70 years after his death—is an ever more real possibility. When Michie, as the agonized genius, wonders plaintively, “Why have a body, when bodies must die,” it doesn’t seem like a rhetorical question.