Dr Atomic in Vancouver

A cou­ple of week­ends ago, Pam and I, as part of an early hol­i­day gift from my par­ents, went to a per­for­mance with them at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in New York.  Well, not exactly. What we did do, was see a pro­duc­tion, by the Met live, in down­town Van­cou­ver, just as they were view­ing the same pro­duc­tion in Bal­ti­more. This is actu­ally a bit of tech­no­log­i­cal magic that I never expected to see work so well, and cer­tainly not so close to home.

Believe it or not, once a month or so, the New York Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera broad­casts live per­for­mances, via High Def­i­n­i­tion video and CD-quality mul­ti­chan­nel sound, to a satel­lite, which then beams them down to movie the­atres all across North Amer­ica, includ­ing a cou­ple here in Van­cou­ver (the Sco­tia­bank Para­mount the­atre on Bur­rard, as well as one in North Van­cou­ver). I’ve since learned that the Toronto Bal­let is doing much the same with some of their per­for­mances of the Nutcracker.

So on that Sat­ur­day morn­ing, at 10:00 AM (because it’s live, and in New York City it’s 1PM in the after­noon, the per­fect time for a mat­inée), we saw Doc­tor Atomic, the new opera about Robert Oppen­heimer and the Man­hat­tan Project by Amer­i­can com­poser John Adams.

Bear in mind that although it is pretty amaz­ing that you can do this sort of thing at all, the fact that it’s easy is even more impres­sive. Of course, I could buy tick­ets online and have them charged directly to my Bank Account via Interac (they were a lit­tle less than $25 apiece). There were no lines that morn­ing at the Sco­tia­Bank The­atre. The broad­cast was being shown in two the­atres, and one was nearly full, so Pam and I opted for the sec­ond, smaller the­atre, and got very, very good seats, the kind you could never get in New York.  If you were going to actu­ally attend the same per­for­mance in New York, $25 would prob­a­bly not cover the park­ing, much less your actual the­atre tick­ets for even stand­ing room, not even count­ing the plane fare, hotel and meals…etc.

Before the pro­duc­tion started, the movie screen showed the inside of the Met in Lin­coln Cen­ter. I’ve been there a cou­ple of times, so it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see it again, live, with audi­ence mem­bers either in their seats or arriv­ing, the famous chan­de­liers all in the down posi­tion (they get pulled up just before the show is about to start),  from the other end of the continent.

After a moment’s intro­duc­tion from back­stage by Susan Gra­ham, the host of the broad­cast, the cam­era cuts to the main tech­ni­cal direc­tor telling the con­duc­tor that it’s time for the per­for­mance to start.

The opera?  The first act was a lit­tle slow, dra­mat­i­cally, but the music was superb. I think it’s one of the composer’s best scores. The aria on words of John Donne (his Holy Son­net XIV) at the end of the first act is brilliant:

Bat­ter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Rea­son yhour viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your ene­mie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you rav­ish mee.

I also was struck by the beauty of Adams’ orches­tra­tion and his ear for bril­liant sonori­ties, which I’d come to know from his ear­lier work (and one of my favourite orches­tral pieces) Har­monielehrer, a sort of three-movement sym­phonic salute to to roman­tic music of the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury. The end­ing of the opera is dra­mat­i­cally shat­ter­ing, with an extremely intense count­down to the bril­liant flash of the first atomic bomb test, the moment when Oppen­heimer and his cowork­ers saw that the human race now, for the first time in his­tory, had the power to destroy them­selves and the planet, a bur­den that we all bear to this day.

As we lis­tened to the music and saw the singers on stage, we also saw sub­ti­tles, so we didn’t have to won­der what they were singing. There was also an excel­lent bit of doc­u­men­tary and inter­view with the com­poser and some of the per­form­ers (and I kept feel­ing like they should be left alone to relax a bit after a half hour of straight singing rather than be bad­gered in their stage makeup by Ms. Graham!)

After the per­for­mance, I talked to my par­ents by phone. After all, we had all just been to the same per­for­mance together, and I wanted to see how they liked it. They told me that my cousin in Detroit had actu­ally also been to the same per­for­mance in her town, and talked to them by cell phone dur­ing inter­mis­sion. Score another one for telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy. I guess the next step will be to recre­ate the Met holo­graph­i­cally for us in Van­cou­ver, and after that, it’s ‘beam me to Lin­coln Cen­ter, Scotty’.