The Turing Test
Julian Wagstaff


Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And so it was with the genesis of The Turing Test.
It was April 2006, and I had just secured an agreement in principal from Edinburgh Studio Opera (formerly the Edinburgh University Opera Club) to stage the première of my new opera. The only problem was that there was no opera. There was not even an idea for an opera. I had been wrestling since the New Year with the most improbable plan for a piece about the British general election of 1926. Entitled The Zinoviev Letter, it was to be a hard-hitting critique of the dangerous power of the media to subtly transform conjecture into established fact in the minds of the reading or viewing public.

Fortunately, my PhD supervisor Nigel Osborne (ever the voice of reason) spotted the flaw in my plan. He demanded to know where the “love interest” would come from. Without it, he said, there was no opera. I could not produce said love interest, and so three months of diligent research duly hit the bricks.

The following week I flew out to Boston, Massachusetts (in my “other life” as a computer programmer) to write an equally improbable control application for a pair of robotic incubator units for the pharmaceutical industry. While there, I visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its famous MIT Museum. The museum had a section devoted to the Turing test, Alan Turing’s test for human-level intelligence in a machine. Almost immediately those three words became, in my mind, the title of a piece of theatre. Then, over the next hour or so, characters began to materialise within my imagination – with names, desires, character traits and looks. Several dramatic ideas which had been with me for a while, looking for a home, began to attach themselves to those characters. By the time I left the museum the workings of a libretto had formed in my head. I wrote a detailed scenario on the plane home the following day and the libretto, piano and orchestral score followed sequentially from that point onwards.

The Turing Test is not, perhaps, what many people might expect from a contemporary opera. Firstly, it is set in the future; secondly, its libretto is not based on any pre-existing text, and thirdly its music resists straightforward binary categorisations based upon distinctions such as tonal/atonal, “popular”/“serious”, opera/musical etc. My hope is that these peculiarities will be viewed as strengths rather than weaknesses.

My further hope is that the opera will function on a number of different levels, and appeal to a range of different audiences. In short, I will be pleased if there is enough opera to satisfy opera fans, enough musical theatre to retain the ear of musical go-ers, and enough science to keep the interest of our friends in the Edinburgh University School of Informatics, whose generous sponsorship has made this production possible.

The overarching idea that informs this work is that true intelligence goes beyond the ability to simply give the “right” answers to a given set of questions, and that it is only when machines are capable of appreciating art and music that they will have begun to stake a claim to human- level intelligence. Thus this “opera about whether computers can appreciate opera” goes to the heart of what it is to be human and what, in the end, differentiates us humans from mere machines.


Instrumentation Genre Stage and ensemble
Tag opera
Duration 60 minutes
Instrumentation Violin 1 (section) [1 player]; Violin 2 (section) [1 player]; Viola [1 player]; Cello [2 players]; Double bass [1 player]; Flute (+ piccolo) [1 player]; Clarinet (+ saxophone) [1 player]; Bassoon (+ contrabassoon) [1 player]; Horn [1 player]; Percussion [1 player]; Piano [1 player]; Soprano [1 player]; Mezzo-soprano [1 player]; Alto [1 player]; Tenor [1 player]; Baritone [1 player]; Bass [1 player]

Performances of this work

Date Venue Performer Link
15/08/2007 (*premiére) Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK Link: The Turing Test website

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