Opera-singing robots? Absolutely, in Project BLANK’s new chamber opera (2024)

Take two UC San Diego alums, a century-old sci-fi play and an adventurous theater/music company, and what do you get?

Project BLANK’s “The Robots,” a humorous and dystopian — or is it dystopian but humorous? — chamber opera.

Composer Carolyn Chen and Project BLANK Leslie Leytham stayed in touch after Chen finished her doctorate in 2014 and moved to Los Angeles. Five years later, Leytham asked if her friend would help transform the 1920 play “R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots” into an opera.


Written by Karel Čapek, the play is widely believed to have introduced the word “robots” to the world. In “R.U.R.,” mass-produced humanoid robots gradually gain enough self-awareness to revolt against their human creators. The Czech satirist was exploring the harms of the industrial revolution.

“Now, we are staring down the barrel of AI,” said Leytham, who is a professional mezzo-soprano and seasoned opera presenter. “The book is a big, campy farce — broad in the storytelling, even though the themes are heavy.

“It’s so big, it’s perfect for opera singers to ham it up. Our operas have had such dark themes in the last few years. I wanted something funny.”

Project BLANK will present the world premiere of “The Robots” this weekend at Bread & Salt Gallery in Logan Heights.

“Leslie’s been doing opera for forever,” Chen said, speaking from her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock. “She really saw Commedia dell’Arte-type characters in ‘R.U.R.’ It seemed like interesting material to work with. As the years have passed, it’s gotten more relevant.

“And it’s really funny!”

Opera-singing robots? Absolutely, in Project BLANK’s new chamber opera (1)

Tenor Miguel Zazueta, left, baritone Paul Young Jr., baritone Jonathan Nussman and stage director Rosie Glen-Lambert at a rehearsal for Project BLANK’s world premiere of the opera “The Robots.”

(Courtesy of Leslie Leytham)

Fun and maniacal

Given that “R.U.R” was written in 1920, it’s not surprising there was only one female character. Besides the usual narrative challenges of adapting a play to opera, Chen needed to present a different gender dynamic.

The job was made easier because, from the onset, Leytham wanted to play the human role of Mr. Domin, the general director of Rossum’s Universal Robots. The cast has three women and four men. Leytham said she hasn’t played a “trouser role” since her college days.

What drew her to the character Mr. Domin?

“Because he’s so dumb and goofy,” Leytham said with a laugh. “He is so fun and maniacal. I realized his mania would lend itself well to my performative style.

“It would have been boring to have one female in the cast. And we have so many wonderful female singers! When Carolyn transformed the play to libretto, she changed the assistant robot to a woman. It stands on operatic tradition that the female role — the secretary, the maid — is the smartest one in the room. That is a classic operatic trope.”

Of the “The Robots” cast, Leytham, soprano Mariana Flores-Bucio, tenor Miguel Zazueta-Cervera and baritone Jonathan Nussman all had key roles in “No Exit,” Project BLANK’s highly praised 2023 chamber opera. In “The Robots,” they’re joined by contralto Danielle Perrault, baritone Paul Young, Jr. and bass Shelby Condray.

Behind the scenes will be stage director Rosie Glen-Lambert, music director Kyle Adam Blair, scenic designer Victoria Petrovich, lighting designer Russell Chow and technical director Joe Cantrell. Supporting the singers will be six instrumentalists.

Project BLANK commissioned Chen to write “The Robots” and she and Leytham worked closely on the script. Early on, Chen came to San Diego for a table read.

“It was great just to hear people’s speaking voices and to kind of get a sense of their presence before I wrote the vocal parts,” Chen recalled. “It’s been really rewarding working with Project BLANK.

“The depth of our collaboration has been extremely fulfilling. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from these conversations with them. I’m excited to see how things turn out.”

About Carolyn Chen

Chen, 40, earned her Ph.D. in music from UC San Diego. She also has a master’s in modern thought & literature and a B.A. in music from Stanford University. Her honors thesis was on free improvisation and radical politics.

She was born in New Jersey to parents who had immigrated from Taiwan. The family moved to San Jose when she was 11. A pianist from a young age, Chen now teaches piano and composition privately. She also plays the guqin, a Chinese zither.

Her varied work — in music, film and performance art — has been presented at festivals and exhibitions in 25 countries. It has been featured at Disney Hall, Carnegie Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Guggenheim Bilbao and Beijing’s Institute for Provocation, among others.

As a Fulbright Scholar at the American Academy in Berlin, Chen wrote an opera that mashed up the characters from Euripides’ plays and the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. It was at UCSD that Chen met opera singer Leslie Leytham and pianist Brendan Nguyen, who together co-founded the San Diego arts nonprofit. Project BLANK.

Chen lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Tal Allweil, and their 3-1/2-year-old daughter, Beatrix. With “The Robots” premiering this weekend, the very pregnant Chen — her due date is June 11 — is crossing her fingers the baby won’t make this a double world premiere.

“It’s really like a baby anytime!” she said.

Project BLANK presents ‘The Robots’

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bread & Salt Gallery, 1955 Julian Ave., Logan Heights

Tickets: $15-$25

Online: projectblanksd.org

Wood is a freelance writer.

Opera-singing robots? Absolutely, in Project BLANK’s new chamber opera (2024)
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