Alan Turing Gets Channeled in a New Opera: Hear Audio from The Life And Death(S) Of Alan Turing

Cre­ative Com­mons image by Steve Park­er

It can seem like a cru­el irony that some of the most cel­e­brat­ed peo­ple of our day did­n’t receive the same acclaim dur­ing their some­times trou­bled lives. Van Gogh may have been on the cusp of fame when he died despair­ing and broke, but few could have imag­ined then that he would be the uni­ver­sal­ly beloved and admired artist he became in the fol­low­ing decades. (A recent Doc­tor Who episode poignant­ly imag­ined Van Gogh trav­el­ing to our time to wit­ness his lega­cy.) In a more recent exam­ple in the sci­ences, the book—now film—Hid­den Fig­ures cel­e­brates three pre­vi­ous­ly unsung African-Amer­i­can women: math­e­mati­cians, or “human com­put­ers,” whose cal­cu­la­tions were instru­men­tal to NASA’s suc­cess but whose accom­plish­ments were obscured by prej­u­dice.

The same could not quite be said for Alan Tur­ing, anoth­er genius recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed in a mul­ti­ple-award-win­ning Hol­ly­wood film, award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary, and spate of arti­cles, essays, and books. Tur­ing was vicious­ly per­se­cut­ed for his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty by the state, and he has often been unfair­ly char­ac­ter­ized in many por­tray­als since.

In 1952, he was con­vict­ed of “gross inde­cen­cy” for a rela­tion­ship with anoth­er man and giv­en the choice between prison and chem­i­cal cas­tra­tion. The bril­liant Eng­lish math­e­mati­cian, code­break­er, and father of mod­ern com­put­ing and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence chose the lat­ter, and the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects were so demor­al­iz­ing that he took his own life two years later—perhaps grim­ly inspir­ing the Apple logo as he enact­ed his favorite scene from Snow White (a mat­ter in some dis­pute, it should be not­ed).

Tur­ing “left behind a last­ing lega­cy,” note the mak­ers of the docu-dra­ma Code­break­ers, “and lin­ger­ing ques­tions about what else he might have accom­plished if soci­ety had embraced his unique genius instead of reject­ing it.” It’s not fair to say that soci­ety reject­ed his genius—perhaps even more trag­i­cal­ly, it reject­ed his full human­i­ty. Turing’s genius, though cut short at 41, received its due, inspir­ing, since 1966, the high­est award in com­put­er sci­ence. His famed “Tur­ing test” became the stan­dard by which near­ly all attempts at arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence have been mea­sured. In addi­tion to those films, books, and essays, Tur­ing has been much laud­ed in musi­cal pro­duc­tions, name­ly the Pet Shop Boys “orches­tral pop biog­ra­phy” A Man From the Future and a 30-minute ora­to­rio by Adam Gop­nik and com­pos­er Nico Muh­ly called Sen­tences.

And now, a new two-act opera, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Tur­ing, was pre­sent­ed to the pub­lic for the first time, in its entire­ty, on Jan­u­ary 12th at New York’s Amer­i­can Lyric The­ater (ALT). Com­mis­sioned in 2012, and writ­ten by com­pos­er Jus­tine Chen with a libret­to by David Sim­pati­co, the opera is “a his­toric-fan­ta­sia on Turing’s life” that does not obscure the man as it acknowl­edges his genius. Many crit­ics felt that 2014’s The Imi­ta­tion Game “obfus­cat­ed his sex­u­al­i­ty and desex­u­al­ized him in an attempt to make the sto­ry more main­stream,” remarks Shawn Milnes at The Dai­ly Beast. “He was not a sex­u­al crea­ture in this movie,” agrees Sim­pati­co. “He was in the clos­et.” That impres­sion of Tur­ing’s per­son­al life has almost become com­mon­place. And yet the truth “could­n’t be more oppo­site,” Sim­pati­co argues.

He was com­plete­ly out. He was out upon meet­ing peo­ple. He would say, ‘How are you doing? I’m a homo­sex­u­al. Will you have a prob­lem with that? No.’ He was out to every­body. The movie makes it feel like he had some­thing to hide.

Ful­ly acknowl­edg­ing all of the dimen­sions of Turing’s life allows the opera–The Life and Death(s) of Alan Tur­ing– to draw deeply mov­ing arias from his biog­ra­phy like “Cave of Won­ders,” above, in which Tur­ing express­es “his grief over the loss of his first love,” Christo­pher Mor­com, a fel­low grade school stu­dent who died young in 1930. Tur­ing was “open­ly dev­as­tat­ed” by the event, writes L.V. Ander­son at Slate, “and he sub­se­quent­ly devel­oped a rela­tion­ship with Morcom’s fam­i­ly, going on vaca­tions with them and main­tain­ing a cor­re­spon­dence with Morcom’s moth­er for years. In The Imi­ta­tion Game, by con­trast, he “denies hav­ing known Christo­pher very well” in a flash­back scene.

The music of the opera’s Pro­logue, above, owes a debt to com­posers like Steve Reich and John Adams, with its puls­ing piano and cacoph­o­ny of voic­es, sim­u­lat­ing, per­haps, the rush of thought in Turing’s bril­liant mind. At the ALT site, you can hear a fur­ther excerpt from the opera, “The Social Con­tract,” which dra­ma­tizes the pres­sure Turing’s moth­er put on him to mar­ry, and his sub­se­quent con­sid­er­a­tion of a mar­riage of con­ve­nience to his col­league in cryp­to­analy­sis, Joan Clarke. In the opera, writes Milnes, Sim­pati­co had the idea of “fus­ing sex and intel­lect on stage” in order to bal­ance Turing’s por­tray­al and “see who the per­son was,” as he puts it. As Sim­pati­co says, the trag­i­cal­ly per­se­cut­ed genius “had no divi­sion between his sex­u­al, sen­su­al, phys­i­cal car­nal self and his intel­lec­tu­al, cere­bral, inte­ri­or self.” Only peo­ple who couldn’t take them both togeth­er seemed to have found it nec­es­sary to sep­a­rate the two, and thus do ter­ri­ble dam­age to the man as a whole.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Books on Young Alan Turing’s Read­ing List: From Lewis Car­roll to Mod­ern Chro­mat­ics

Hear the First Record­ing of Com­put­er Music: Researchers Restore Three Melodies Pro­grammed on Alan Turing’s Com­put­er (1951)

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Vin­cent van Gogh Vis­its a Mod­ern Muse­um & Gets to See His Artis­tic Lega­cy: A Touch­ing Scene from Doc­tor Who

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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