Generative AI Goes to the Opera

I think music is the purest artform because it is uniquely capable of provoking strong emotional responses without necessarily conveying meaning or information. Yes, one could say the same thing about abstract visual art, but I think the brain is hardwired to at least try to read meaning in visual expression and that this is not so with instrumental music. Moreover, I don’t think any medium is so universally provocative of human emotion as music.

It is admittedly cliché to talk about operatic arias provoking tears, but in my experience, they really do. In fact, one of my favorite arias is about a tear, aptly entitled “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (One Furtive Tear) from Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 opera L’elisir Di Amore (The Elixir of Love). I do have a personal relationship with this song because it was first introduced to me by my late father-in-law, a tenor who sang with several U.S. opera companies, served as artist in residence at The Israeli Nation Opera, and sang for Pope John Paul II in 1988. I wish had a digital version of his “Una Furtiva Lagrima” to share because it is, in classical terms, the shiznit.

But I was thinking about that aria for this post because, notwithstanding the familial connection, nothing external to the music influences its effect on me. I am not an expert on opera or Donizetti, and I do not fully understand the Italian libretto. Hence, the mechanics by which the score and the tenor’s performance reach through this curmudgeon’s crusty exterior to trigger an emotional response can be boiled down to a science, which means that a similar experience can be created by a generative AI. And so, the elephant in the room asks the obvious question:  Will the provenance of a work matter to the people who experience it?

I recognize that music by generative AI is already responding to this question, but these early sprouts in the market do not tell us what the broader cultural effects might be in a future without Donizettis, Domingos, or orchestras. One valid prediction could be that it won’t matter to the audience experiencing the music whether it was generated by a machine or another human. If a song produces spontaneous tears or laughter or a desire to dance, then who cares if it was made in a lab rather than by charming Liverpudlians sweating it out in a London studio?

Most Artists Are Not Performers

This conversation requires that we make a distinction between performance and composition. In other posts, when I’ve scorned the idea of machines replacing artists, I have generally referred to performance and drawn analogies to sports. One that seems to resonate in conversation is my NASCAR example because this is basically watching machines move in circles and waiting to see which machine finishes the requisite number of circles first. This lifeless description makes the point that without the people in the drivers’ seats and pit crews—humans who are largely hidden from view during the race—NASCAR would be about as interesting as watching an oil pump bob its mechanical head at the ground.

I believe our desire, or need, to experience performance—whether it’s Blake Morgan playing his music or Coco Gauff winning the Women’s US Open—mitigates AI’s power to usurp the role of many artists. But if this is true, the rule only applies when composition and performance are deeply intertwined, as with singer/songwriters like the recently late Jimmy Buffett. An AI “Caribbean-Drunk-Rock-n-Roll-Music”[1] generator could never foster the whole experience that became the Buffett brand. But could this ersatz “Margaritaville” mixer compose the equivalent of a new “Come Monday,” and if so, would it matter to future listeners who have no idea what the AI “learned” from Jimmy?

Most creators are “composers” and not “performers,” often as removed from the audience experiencing their work as I am from Donizetti while listening to his aria in 2023. And frankly, Donizetti, who died in 1848, is hardly more obscure to the average listener than Rod Temperton, who died in 2016 after writing some of the most popular songs of the 1970s and 80s including several of Michael Jackon’s biggest hits. Never in my teen years was I aware of Mr. Temperton’s role in all those songs.

So, keeping the focus on the composers, authors, painters, photographers, filmmakers et al. who do not perform, is there some anthropological reason to believe (hope) that artists will not be replaced by machines making music, books, visual arts, etc.? I understand that there are practical reasons why AIs may not get there at scale, but the question I’m asking is more about us than about the technology. Will the science that makes music provocative continue to work on the human listener, if future compositions are produced by things that cannot feel heartache or longing or humor, etc.? Put differently, will the novelty of generative AI wear off because the compositions it produces will become flat, bloodless, and disposable?

In my book, I wondered why an advanced AI (one that can make even semi-autonomous decisions) would bother to produce “art” upon reaching a certain threshold in its so-called intelligence. If humans make art because it’s one way we confront, synthesize, and respond to the human experience, then perhaps the “smarter” the AI becomes, the more likely it is to realize that it has nothing to say because it has no experience. Or does the robot begin to create works in response to the robot experience and ignore its instructions to produce songs or novels or pictures for human consumption? I doubt it, but if this does happen, we can be sure that some humans will form a cult to follow the new bot prophet.

But I’m not really answering the thesis question, am I? Because I have no idea. I want to believe that the question was answered by Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park when he warned that nature finds a way.* Only instead of dinosaur nature triumphing over laboratory safeguards to keep them contained, it would be human nature instinctively rejecting synthetic “art” for reasons that are likewise ineffable. For better or worse the AI experiment, like Jurassic Park, has begun, and we’ll have to wait and see who gets eaten. So, perhaps the new version of the Turing Test should not be whether the computer can make you believe it’s human, but whether it can provoke a furtive tear and then ask whether you mind that it is not human.

[1] Buffett’s own description from his live album You Had to Be There.

*Thanks to comment by Bob Hill. Malcolm says “Life finds a way.” I edited the text to retain the point but drop the quotation marks.

Photo in collage: Thomas O’Leary in The Tales of Hoffmann.

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