It has taken a decade for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing to grow from an idea into a full- fledged opera. Chicago Opera Theater stages the world premiere of composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico's historically inspired tragedy this month for two performances only at Millennium Park's Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
British mathematician Alan Turing was the mastermind behind successful Allied efforts to develop the Enigma Machine, which decoded secret Nazi communications during World War II. Turing also became an influential pioneer in what would become the field of computer science.
But the British government later prosecuted Turing in the '50s for "gross indecency" for consensual and private homosexual acts. He was then pushed to undergo chemical castration before he died in 1954 from an alleged suicide involving a poisoned apple.
"This was a guy who saved the planet and created the future, but was then wiped out from the pages of history," Simpatico said. "This is a horrific story of homophobia, prejudice and bigotry."
Lawrence Edelson, the founder and artistic and general director of American Lyric Theater, commissioned Chen and Simpatico to write an opera in 2012. Edelson was very impressed by their previous collaborative assignments during a year-long American Lyric Theater writing program for potential opera composers and librettists.
By that point, Simpatico was best known for his stage adaptations of Disney's High School Musical, while Taiwanese-American composer Chen had mostly done chamber works and a Macbeth-inspired youth opera called Three, Two, OneBANG! As a gay writer, Simpatico particularly felt the need "to try to honor our heroes."
Simpatico and Chen initially knew little about Turing and his enormous impact on the 20th century. But during their research and the opera's long gestation, they were very heartened to see Turing receive much more historical awareness and several laurels.
In pop culture, actor Benedict Cumberbatch starred as Turing in the 2014 Academy Award-nominated film The Imitation Game. But more importantly, Turing received a posthumous royal pardon in 2013, while thousands of other individuals prosecuted for gross indecency were pardoned under the Alan Turing law in 2017. Turing's portrait was also chosen appear on Britain's new polymer 50 pound bank note, which went into circulation in 2021.
In writing his opera libretto, Simpatico drew heavily from his friend and author Charles Petzold, who penned the 2008 book The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine. Simpatico was also aware of gay actor Derek Jacobi, who starred as Turing in Hugh Whitemore's London and Broadway stage drama Breaking the Code in the '80s (Jacobi also returned to star in a 1996 BBC-TV adaptation).
"I told David, I don't want to watch the movies," Chen said. "I didn't want any of that living in my headany of the music or the actors' voices. I didn't want any of that to affect my perception of who (Simpatico was) portraying."
For The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, Chen and Simpatico worked to create what they called a "fantasia of historic proportions" by looking back on key moments of Turing's life and imagining an array of differing and theoretical outcomes surrounding his death. They also wanted to explore Turing's motivations as a gay man.
"We really wanted to express the fact that one of Alan Turing's problems was he couldn't compartmentalize himself," said Simpatico about Turing's inability to lead a fully closeted life. "Every scene where there's this intensely, pivotal and intellectual discovery, it's coupled with a sexual energy. It melds."
Though Turing is often seen as the father of computing, Chen's musical score decidedly does not feature synthesizers or other electronic music. But Chen does cite the Japanese manga graphic novel Ghost in the Shell and internet chat rooms of the '90s as a musical influence to reflect how we interact with technology.
"These ideas of online chatting with people, and what a chat room would sound like, are a conceit of how we use the opera chorus," Chen said. "It's like we're the children of Alan Turing. It's a sound that infiltrates the entire opera."
Simpatico and Chen also touched upon some of Turing's mathematical theorems into the opera, checking in with author Petzold during the writing process. In 2019, Chicago Opera Theater came aboard to do orchestral workshops conducted by the company's music director Lidiya Yankovskaya (who is also set to conduct the world-premiere performances).
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing stars Jonathan Michie in the title role; a baritone, Michie has been attached many years to the project. Peter Rothstein directs what Chen and Simpatico are describing as their first grand opera.
Though Turing is much more historically revered nowadays, Simpatico and Chen are concerned about current right-wing efforts to silence the LGBTQ+ community globally and at home. That's why Chen and Simpatico feel that The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing is an extremely timely and cautionary tale.
"Hopefully this piece finds resonance within the LGBTQ+ community and beyond," Simpatico said. "It's about being a genuine human and living your life without fear of being condemned for who you are. I can't think of anything that's more important."
Chicago Opera Theater's world premiere of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing plays 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, and 3 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $25-$165. Call 773-334-7777 or visit chicagooperatheater.org .