“The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage,” a graphic novel by Sidney Padua, offers a playful take on the lives of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, two seminal figures in the world of computer science. The novel follows their journey as they bring Babbage’s Analytical Engine to life, embarking on a series of adventures filled with humor, espionage, and intrigue in a Victorian steampunk world. The novel’s witty writing and intricate illustrations have earned widespread praise, showcasing the imaginative and entertaining depiction of these historical figures. This success has led to further adaptations, including the opera Lovelace and Babbage by Elena Ruehr and librettist Royce Vavrek, which debuted at MIT this past weekend.
Guerilla Opera brought Ruehr’s work to life at the Theater Arts Building W97 Black Box Theater on the MIT campus. This premier venue, dedicated solely to the performing arts and opened in 2018, provides students and faculty with state-of-the-art facilities for performance and production. This sought-after location made for a perfect setting for this opera.
In the opening prologue of Lovelace and Babbage we find Lord Byron and Baroness Wentworth engaged in a heated discussion about the future of their daughter, Ada Lovelace, who has displayed a keen interest in mathematics. Act I then takes us forward in time as Ada meets Charles Babbage; the two collaborate on the creation of their difference machine. Tragically, Lovelace dies young at 36 and Babbage’s attempts to complete the project are ultimately fruitless. But what if their fates had taken a different turn? The opera ventures into a multiverse where Lovelace and Babbage encounter royalty in Act II, delve into alternate dimensions in Act III, and become crime-fighters (Act IV), before reaching the epilogue.
As Ada Lovelace, soprano Alaina de la Guardia captivated the audience with her clear, crystalline soprano voice, especially in the afternoon’s highlight aria, “Imaginary Quantities” In Act III. Aaron Engebreth portrayed Babbage in a resonant baritone which paired well with de la Guardia; their slapstick and comedic timing synched well. The real standouts of the production, however, came in the minor roles. Erin Matthews, who played both Baroness Wentworth and Queen Victoria, among many other roles, had a clear and flexible soprano that was a joy to hear. Tenor Omar Najimi, who took on the role of Lord Byron and several other characters, gave a stand-out performance on Saturday. Najimi gave boisterous engagement to his over-the-top minor roles (most memorably, the role of “Zero” in the inter-dimensional Act III) yet still provided thoughtful performances, filling the space with his elegant tenor that soared in its upper register.
This 65-minute show came to us in a well-crafted minimalist production. The slender orchestra, comprising a violin (Lilit Hartunian), cello (Stephen Marotto), clarinet (Rane Moore), and percussion (Mike Williams), delivered powerful, thrilling music that punched above its size. Elena Ruehr’s quirky, energetic score flows seamlessly between different scenes of the opera. Each instrument carries its own weight in the orchestration, frequently playing its own dramatic role in the story; in comments after the performance, Ruehr mentioned how Moore’s clarinet was practically its own character. Director Giselle Ty makes good use of the dancers Henoch Spinola, Anelise Tatum, and Wesley Urbanczyk, who are simultaneously mute dramatic chorus, human props, and stagehands. Keithlyn Parkman’s spare but imaginative scene design and Rebecca Shannon’s colorful steampunk costumes provided plenty to enjoy.
Lovelace and Babbage connected fittingly with the MIT premiere, given the Institute’s pivotal role in the history of computer science and AI. The afternoon’s performance, which elicited laughter from some audience members; comedy is always a matter of taste. Nevertheless, the opera’s reimagining of Lovelace and Babbage’s story as one of success and adventure instead of failure testifies to the power of art to reinterpret historical figures. The final message of the epilogue reminds us that these adventures in the multiverse are just “illustrations of the truth” and a fitting way to honor their legacy. How better to remember them than with our imagination?
Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses, including Cantata Singers.