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’.

3 Replies to “Dr Atomic in Vancouver”

  1. Thanks for the report. I’ve seen the ads in the the­atres and won­dered what it would be like. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Hi Melis­sa,
    I’d not seen any­thing about it until I got inside the the­atre and saw the posters with the sched­ule. I won­der where else they are adver­tis­ing this.

  3. I too have seen the ads in the the­atre while attend­ing reg­u­lar movies. As the only opera lover in my fam­i­ly, I had thought it would be a good way to see the opera. You have inspired me to check it out.

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