Ada Lovelace is having a moment. The Victorian mathematician and proto-computer programmer has long been one of precious few historical role models for scientifically inclined young girls; but as the Internet and its assorted proudly geeky subcultures have propagated to previously unthinkable extents, Lovelace has taken form as a sort of mascot. In the past 10 years, she has shown up in several TV series: “Doctor Who,” “The Frankenstein Chronicles,” and “Victoria.” The middle-grade book series “The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency” imagines teenage versions of her and Mary Shelley as girl-genius detectives. The Countess of Lovelace even inspired a pre-K book, “Ada Twist, Scientist,” which has since been adapted into a Netflix animated series with a theme song co-written by Dorchester’s own Kay Hanley.
And now she sings opera! On Friday at the MIT Theater Arts building, Guerilla Opera presented the world premiere of “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” an adaptation of Sydney Padua’s whimsical webcomic series of the same name, with music by MIT faculty composer Elena Ruehr and libretto by Royce Vavrek. This is the second opera with Lovelace as a central character that I’ve seen in 18 months. Like I said, she’s having a moment.
However, Padua is no newcomer to the Lovelace parade. In 2009, she whipped up a humorous biographical comic imagining Lovelace’s background as a superhero origin story. So the true story goes: When Lovelace was 18, her tutor Mary Somerville introduced her to engineer and inventor Charles Babbage, who was at work on designing early mechanical computing devices. The meeting sparked a working relationship and friendship that continued until Lovelace’s death from cancer at age 36. Babbage, who was more than 30 years her senior but outlived her by several years, never completed any of his machines.
“Ugh, that’s a terrible ending!” Padua declares in the comic, and in the ensuing anthology series — now a book — she imagines an alternate universe in which Lovelace and Babbage not only completed the machines, but teamed up as a brains-and-brains adventurer duo. This is to say, if you wanted to learn about the true stories of Lovelace and Babbage, this opera won’t teach you. If the comic-book graphics (courtesy of Padua) projected above and around the black-box stage didn’t give that away from the start, it was clear by the end of the first scene, in which Lovelace (as portrayed by Guerilla artistic director/soprano Aliana de la Guardia) and Babbage (baritone Aaron Engebreth) danced the Macarena as two omniscient portraits praise the invention of the “Amazing Geek.”
This may be the rarest of rare birds in modern opera: an actual comedy! And the evening offered plentiful laughs, most of them courtesy of soprano Erin Matthews and tenor Omar Najmi, who popped up in several different roles in addition to those portraits — for example, a high-flown, cat-obsessed Queen Victoria and her bewigged footman, clad in only a brocade jacket and British flag boxer briefs. (Not to be outdone, Matthews flashed her own colorful shorts from beneath Victoria’s hoopskirt at every opportunity.) Since the slapstick gags were built on a foundation of excellent singing, they felt earned.
Engebreth made for a delightfully hammy, full-voiced Babbage. De la Guardia’s Lovelace downplayed most of the comedy in favor of sincerity, which sometimes worked, but sometimes made the character feel imported from a different story: perhaps that other Lovelace opera, Kamala Sankaram’s poignant domestic drama, “The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace,” which has little in common with this opera besides its root inspiration.
Ruehr’s score, performed by a four-piece ensemble with some help from recordings of a real Difference Engine, had its moments of electrifying energy and emotional heft (Lovelace’s ode to imaginary numbers was one) but the vocal music was mostly utilitarian, effective for delivering hefty amounts of dialogue and not much else.
Adapting an anthology comic to a 70-minute opera is no easy task, and certain things didn’t translate too well from page to stage. One of Padua’s episodes acknowledges modern perceptions of Lovelace as either an overhyped fraud or a super-genius, changing her size à la “Alice in Wonderland” and putting her on trial with an asterisk (used in the comic’s copious footnotes) as judge, in lieu of the Queen of Hearts. Since footnotes don’t play an important visual role in the opera, it wasn’t clear why Matthews was dressed as a star-shaped blob.
However, I couldn’t have asked for a better onstage counterpart to the comic’s fantastical machines than the one Guerilla offered: dancers Henoch Spinola, Anelise Avila Tatum, and Wesley Urbansczyk. In the last Guerilla production I saw, “ELLIS,” the dance elements detracted from the action rather than enhanced it, but this wasn’t true here. In silently lithe unison, canon, and chaotic motion, the human bodies conveyed all the wondrous and maddening elements of these machines that could have been.
THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE
Presented by Guerilla Opera, the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, and MIT Music and Theater Arts. Friday, Feb. 3. www.guerillaopera.org