Judging by preparations for Wednesday’s Android Opera concert at the Jubilee Stage, your favourite soprano could be a thing of the past, or end up playing second fiddle to cutting edge robots who can sing like an angel.
But, a human touch remains.
When The National visited rehearsals earlier in the week, the robot stood centre stage backed by musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Named Android Alter 3, the machine partly resembles the humanoid from the sci-fi film RoboCop. With its torso and arms a mass of gleaming metal and wires, it boasts a rubber face set to a wide-eyed smile.
Sitting beside Android Alter 3 on the keyboards is the man responsible for the creation, Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya.
Organised by Expo 2020's Japan Pavilion, the Dubai show marks the world premiere of Mirror. It is the latest show from Shibuya’s Android Opera series, which included last year’s Scary Beauty, that made its debut in Japan.
“I really don’t know how people will react to Mirror here,” he tells The National. “I am curious to see what kind of reaction we will get but I am confident that people will enjoy it.”
A robot improvising with humans
The self-assuredness comes from Mirror offering more than novelty value. The fusion between man and machine, technology and spirituality, future and tradition is imbued throughout the show.
The orchestra’s luscious string section swirls with Shibuya's cold and precise synths, while the chanting of 1,200 year-old Buddhist prayers by Japanese monks will feature alongside Alter 3's computer-assisted croon.
The ethereal vibe is further enhanced with an evocative audiovisual show.
The musicians will perform under diffused lighting effects while a backing screen projects some of the robot’s facial reactions and moves, which Shibuya confirms is up to 300. When asked if Alter 3’s voice is completely AI or features pre-recorded elements of the human voice, he grins and says it’s a trade secret.
"I can say the android will not only sing texts generated by AI, but it can pick up the sound of the piano or the Buddhist monks and sing his own melody as a reaction," he says. "That's very interesting from a technical standpoint in that it shows how a robot can also improvise with humans."
The bigger questions at play
That interplay forms the heart of Shibuya's career, during which he has released a number of electro-acoustic albums such as 2019's Heavy Requiem — Buddhist Chant Shomyo + Electronics as well collaborating with artists and robotic scientists for performances at France's Palais de Tokyo and the Paris Opera.
More than a thrilling journey to the unknown, Shibuya’s career is motivated by answering questions more pertinent today than tomorrow.
"The show is really a prayer and a hope for world peace. The fact that we can sing Buddhist chants by Japanese monks in Dubai is amazing,” he says. “It also makes us ask why we humans quarrel and hate each other while we can get along so well with Androids?”
Android Opera: Mirror by Keiichiro Shibuya takes place on Wednesday, March 2 at Jubilee Stage, Expo 2020 Dubai, from 6.30pm to 7pm. Tickets are free with an Expo day pass. More information is available at expo2020dubai.com
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