Suicide is the ultimate finale in opera. Think of Brünnhilde’s immolation scene at the climax of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” or Cio-Cio-San’s seppuku at the end of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
In the case of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing”—which had its spectacular world premiere by Chicago Opera Theater Thursday night at the Harris Theater as part of its fiftieth anniversary—the suicide both starts and ends the opera. Or does it?
British mathematician Alan Turing, who is the father of computer science, has only been widely recognized as such in recent years despite the fact that all of us who use a computer make use of his innovations. Much of Turing’s work was top secret and carried out during World War II, saving millions of lives by cracking Nazi codes.
What is primarily publicly remembered about Turing is that after the war, in 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” for homosexual acts and was subject to chemical castration as a condition of his probation. Turing was found dead two years later at the age of forty-one, believed to have poisoned himself with a cyanide-laced apple in emulation of the apple given to Snow White in Walt Disney’s 1937 first-fully animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” an obsession of Turing’s.
Following a public campaign, British prime minister Gordon Brown issued a public government apology in 2009 and Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing in 2013. The “Alan Turing Law” of 2017 is now regularly used to pardon those similarly convicted.
The idea for an Alan Turing opera originated with librettist David Simpatico over a decade ago as part of an American Lyric Theater program where Simpatico met composer Justine F. Chen. Meticulous collaboration and numerous workshops followed over the years, one of which Lidiya Yankovskaya attended, after which she became immediately involved. After Yankovskaya became music director of Chicago Opera Theater, she arranged a 2019 workshop in Chicago with orchestra. Work continued and after a pandemic delay, “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” is having its first performances. (Don’t blink as there are only two.)
From its opening notes, Chen’s music is compelling and captures the ambiguity of the worlds Turing was caught up in. It is almost a dramatic oratorio in a series of variations. The chorus is seated in a straight row and sings atmospherically throughout the work, sometimes condemning as contemporaries, sometimes commenting in an atemporal manner. Visually, we are bombarded with “chat clouds,” bits of internet chatter that seek to orient us: a world that wouldn’t exist without Turing while we see him found dead in his kitchen laboratory.
We are transported to Turing (Jonathan Michie) in his school days, though he is an adult in his white underwear, a clever way of communicating he felt self-conscious around the uniform black school suits of his contemporaries. Turing’s friend Christopher (Joseph Leppek) is also in his underwear; it is obvious there is commonality and an attraction. As Turing and Christopher become physically intimate, the only contact acceptable in the schoolyard is grappling for dominance and Turing and Christopher become easy pickings.
Turing does get involved with Joan Clarke (Taylor Raven) whom he almost marries, but his feelings and intimacy are with Christopher, who passes away. He remains a constant presence in Turing’s life, however, acting as a muse.
Act II deals with the trial that Turing thought would be to prosecute a man he brought home who robbed him (Justin Berkowitz). Instead, the tables are turned and it is Turing who is found guilty, unable to speak up on his own behalf for his war work as he was bounded by the Official Secrets Act.
The brilliance of the finale of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” is that it leaves open the question of how Turing passed by showing every possibility as if Turing himself had thought through each one of them in much the same manner as he calculated and solved equations.
The conventional explanation remains possible, if not plausible, given the music and the staging. But given the thrilling journey we have made with Turing and his fascination with energy living on and the body being just a shell, it does seem spiritual metamorphosis may be most viable. Even if one doesn’t want to take such a transformation literally, the ways in which Turing continues to influence subsequent generations is a powerful form of transfiguration.
Repeats 3pm Saturday March 25 at Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph (at Millennium Park), chicagooperatheater.org.