New Opera Starring Humanoid Robot Alter 3 in the Works for Tokyo Theater

Alter 3
Justine Emard

Alter 3

Ahead of the German premiere of the "android opera" Scary Beauty, the new "lifelike" humanoid robot Alter 3 was unveiled at the New National Theatre in Tokyo.

Alter 3 was created by Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and University of Tokyo artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami, who have been working for four years on this innovative endeavor that combines their respective fields. Osaka University, University of Tokyo, mixi, Inc., and Warner Music Japan collaborated on this research project.

The remarkable feature of the Alter robots is that they can generate motion autonomously. "We want to further develop Virtual Reality (VR), which enables you to realistically experience the non-ordinary, while bringing in unrealistic androids into everyday life," said Ishiguro about the research project. "And we want to attempt things that serve to join people together."

Ikegami noted, "Throughout the ages, what's necessary in science is the ability to make a breakthrough. Instead of just applying technology that already exists, I think it's important to do research and development to achieve something you want to express."

Composer Keiichiro Shibuya's Scary Beauty, featuring the previous incarnation Alter 2, was premiered in July 2018 in front of a sold-out crowd at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba, Tokyo. The museum's curator, Mahoro Uchida, produces the exhibits of Alter 3 outside of Japan.

"Ever since our first installment of Alter in 2016, it has provided surprise, profound emotion, and time for thought to our visitors while crossing the boundaries between machine and man, life and program," she explained. "The reactions from visitors from outside Japan have been particularly positive, and I feel that from now on, Alter will interact with people all over the world as a presence that shoulders Japanese culture and technology."

Takehito Masui of Warner Music Japan also shared his thoughts on the project's future: "When we considered what we could do to deliver entertainment to the world, it occurred to us that there could be a new art that wasn't about communication between human beings. It's our mission to present this work to the world," he said, assuring that future engagements would be announced as they develop.

The android opera featuring an autonomous robot collaborating in real time with a human orchestra garnered tremendous interest after its premiere last year. The new version with Alter 3 was debuted as the opening program of the Hi, Robot! Mensch Maschine Festival in Düsseldorf on March 13, and Alter 3 will take part in the AI: More Than Human exhibit scheduled at the Barbican Center in London from May to August.

Then, in 2020, a new opera starring Alter 3 will be debuted at the New National Theatre, with operatic artistic director Kazushi Ono overseeing the production. Keiichiro Shibuya is composing the music, while Japanese novelist Masahiko Shimada is developing the script.

Ono explained how the new production came about: "I spoke with Mr. Shibuya about wanting to create an opera for children to be performed at the NNT in summer 2020, and it happened to coincide with the development of Alter 3."

Shibuya, who is currently working on the music for the upcoming project, noted that he "wanted to try something that has never been done in an opera before, and not something typical."

The story will follow Alter 3's journey as it imagines and becomes assured of the future of human beings through its communication with 100 children. The new opera will feature Alter 3 performing together with a children's choir, as well as performances by opera singers, the NNT choir, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the NNT ballet company in an unprecedented collaboration of genres.