Atomic Opera


Image source: The Times Online

What is in the cinema at the moment and might be related to this blog? Do I hear ‘Quantum of Solace’? No! It’s ‘Doctor Atomic’ transmitted into UK cinemas live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York! I have to admit I have never come across this piece of music before, and neither have I come across the famous other composition of John Adams, ‘Nixon in China’. It’s quite pricey if you compare it to a regular cinema visit (and for a student like me anyway), but when do you get the chance to listen to a minimalist musician’s take on the atomic bomb? It would be so cool if they gave the atoms – or the bomb a part to sing, too! (Bruno Latour would be pleased!) Just wondering… what would a femto-soprano sound like?

Anyway, the screening of Doctor Atomic is tomorrow, 8 November 2008! A list of participating cinemas around the world can be found here!

Postscript 08 November 2008:

I went to the screening today (it was quite amusing to watch that the people in the Clapham cinema were more dressed up than the people in the actual opera house in New York!). The opera got introduced and ‘moderated’ by a singer who is performing in the next screening (Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust). What then followed was probably more of a drama than what happens in most other operas – I haven’t been shaken so much in a cinema since watching Dancer in the dark! In the interval, the cinema audience even got to hear John Adams talk about his work. He mentioned the Faustian theme and emphasised the contemporary nature of the topic: the fact that this moment in history showed that the relationship between humans and their planet has unalterably changed. Adams gave climate change as an example. There were more interviews (with Gerald Finley who starred as Oppenheimer, with a physicist from the original Los Alamos laboratory and with Richard Rhodes, the author of the book ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’) and even a short documentary on Oppenheimer. After the interval, a nerve-racking second act followed. The staging really mananged to transfer the feeling the participating scientists and military personnel must have had minutes before the bomb went off. I felt like reaching for a pair of dark goggles myself to protect my fragile human form from what was coming. I even felt torn between sinking into my seat and jumping up to intervene! Then the bomb went off – not in any spectacular way, but rather quietly and gently. After all this tension and the expectancy of something terrifyingly blinding and noisy, the climax was rather kind on the eyes/ears – I wanted it (and at the same time did not want it) to be a bit more inhumane. But maybe this ending gives you something more to think about. Scary things do not always come with a bang…

If you want to see another screening of the opera, it will be showing in different places around the world. In London, it will be staged at the English National Opera February till March 2009. Some more info about the opera can be read here and can be watched on youtube here. The youtube video (from University of California Television) also highlights the desire of the composer/librettist to re-open discussions between scientists and public, and the physicist Marvin Cohen talks about today’s military science issues. On youtube there are also various musical excerpts to listen to such as the amazing aria Batter my heart.

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