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 matinee), 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’.