Review: Lush Contemporary Music Blends With Metaphysics and Science in The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing by Chicago Opera Theater
.Composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico have worked for over a decade to bring The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing to the opera stage. It was commissioned in 2012 by the American Lyric Theater, leading to Chicago Opera Theater developing it for the world premiere in Chicago this week. The result is beautifully sung and acted with a somewhat uneven libretto. Justine Chen has been commissioned to compose music for various art groups including the New York City Ballet and Carnegie Hall. Chen’s work is inspired by a wide range of works from anime, classical Indian music, and ballet.
These influences are perfect for a portrayal of Alan Turing’s life as a mathematician, computer scientist and philosopher whose thought processes were outside the ordinary, to say the least. David Simpatico is a playwright who has written and performed for prestigious companies like Disney, the New York Philharmonic, and Lincoln Center. Simpatico focuses on Turing’s life as a gay man in an era when homosexuality was a crime and considered a mental illness. Turing’s mathematical genius and philosophy are given short shrift here in my opinion. Turing the computer scientist did a masterful job of bringing modern technology and its beginnings together.
Alan Turing is portrayed by baritone Jonathan Michie in an intense and bravura performance. Michie’s range is exacting—easily climbing into higher notes and down to deep bass tones. Michie has command of the role. All of the elements of Turing’s life are outliers because of his extraordinary genius. Tenor Joseph Leppek plays Christopher Morcom, Turing’s childhood friend and first love. Leppek has a clear and pure tenor. He projects the longing and grief of a life cut short as he plays the living Morcom and the soul that the Turing character imagines as his evolution from the human body. Leppek has fine chemistry with Michie making them believable as a couple. Simpatico does a stellar job of writing the relationship as built on shared experiences and being ports in the storm for each other.
Soprano Teresa Castillo sings the role of Turing’s mother Sara with astonishing precision. The vocals in The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing are chromatic. The music does not have the harmonies of traditional opera and Castillo brings some coloratura style to the high notes, one of which had a theremin sound without the shrill timbre. Castillo is also a fine musical actor, bringing a comic edge to her interactions with Michie. The Christmas gift exchange between Sara and Alan is funny and bittersweet. Mezzosoprano Taylor Raven brings Turing’s best friend Joan Clarke to life. She has a soaring voice that blends beautifully with Michie and Castillo. The role is written with Sara Turing wanting Alan to marry Joan and present a “normal” life. There is a subtle comic edge to the scene where Joan makes it clear that she will not put any sexual demands upon him and is fine with a lover on the side with discretion.
Singers Richard Ollarsaba, Justin Berkowitz, and David Salsbery Fry flesh out the cast playing multiple roles in Turing’s life. They are well-written fleshing out some chapters of Turing’s life where he experienced rejection, casual companionship, and betrayal. They also blend in with the fantastic chorus that is positioned overhead the stage. The choral role is another character of society then and now. They whisper technical terms like people in a chat room showing the merging of modern technology that was birthed with Turing’s skills. This is a beautifully written Greek chorus showing how rumors, homophobia, and cruelty are the same in spite of how society is supposed to have evolved.
The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing is directed skillfully by Peter Rothstein who is renowned for the development of new work. Maestra Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts and is known as an advocate for obscure and cutting-edge music as well as for Slavic masterpieces that are lesser known. Yankovskaya has conducted more than 40 world premieres and brings that unique skill to Chicago Opera Theater. I give kudos to the projection designer Anthony Churchill for the visually impactful video behind the actors and around the chorus. The church ruins and tangled vines are a door into Turing’s mind and thought process. The words that are whispered by the chorus are projected along with words such as ‘chat,’ ‘byte,’ and computer equations. One visual that I found particularly evocative was the projection that looked like black and white television snow. If you were born after 1984, you may not be familiar with that term, but television pictures had to be manually adjusted and needed an antenna that affected the picture clarity. Television would have been like that in Turing’s era, and his equations helped evolve television and streaming.
The second half of The Life and Death [s] of Alan Turing is where the story goes off the rails. The trial and cruel punishment are portrayed but I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth treatment of how the chemical castration affected Turing’s psychological health. He is portrayed as never having been in the closet nor is there shame evident in the story, which is true. Turing continued to form theories and delve into a metaphysical philosophy on life and the soul after death. Turing is shown as having an obsession with the evil queen from Snow White. He does an incantation and dips an apple into a cyanide solution and commits suicide. This is where the libretto tried to bring elements of metaphysics, science, and the after-death travel of the soul together at once. It felt wedged in when it could have been interspersed throughout the story where the visuals of tangled vines depict Turin’s inner mind. It was good for advancing some theories of whether Turing was killed by British Intelligence, was a suicide, or it was accidental because his kitchen served as a home lab. Of course, that could be me projecting more traditional elements onto the story. So if you get a chance, go and see The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing and decide for yourself. I do recommend it for t he music, singing, and acting. It is a horrible irony that just as Turing has been exonerated posthumously, homophobia and anti-LGBTQIA ordinances are seeping back into society. Hard-won rights of women and people of color are being chiseled away. The death penalty has been reinstated in some countries for LGBTQIA sexual relations—most recently in Uganda. Book banning is returning. This devolution was happening with the Nazis that Turing helped to defeat. That is reason enough to see this production.
Chicago Opera Theater’s The Life and Death[s] of Alan Turing runs 106 minutes with a 25-minute intermission. There is only one more performance—Saturday, March 25, at 3pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. For tickets and more information, please visit www.cot.org/season/turing.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!