Atomic Power

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, continues his commitment to contemporary work and cutting-edge theatrical design with a new production of Doctor Atomic, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars, which opened on October 13 and runs in repertory through November 13. Based on the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, this thought-provoking opera poses the question: are scientists morally responsible for their creations?

The visually compelling designs for Doctor Atomic feature sets by Julian Crouch, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, and sound by Mark Grey, with an overlay of video by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of UK-based Fifty Nine Productions (Crouch and Fifty Nine Productions also recently collaborated on the Met's production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha and are working together again on the Met's 125th Anniversary Gala in March 2009). With film director Penny Woolcock at the helm, Doctor Atomic combines scientific and abstract imagery in a cinematic style.

“The challenge is to make sure the images are integrated and don't feel superfluous,” says Grimmer, who points out that they worked closely with Crouch to define the visual aesthetic, using archival material from Los Alamos, period maps, and aerial photographs from the 1940s, as well as spiritual images inspired by the Native American Tewa tribe from New Mexico. Chalkboards also inform the imagery. “The scientific achievement at Los Alamos was all figured out using blackboards and chalk,” says Grimmer, noting that he, Warner, and their team usually take control of the creative and technical aspects of a project, from content creation to programming. Multilevel set units with small compartments that represent offices feature chalkboards that double as projection surfaces.

Two SAMSC Design Catalyst media servers and a bank of five Panasonic PTD 10,000s on the balcony rail provide the projection system. Custom software allows simultaneous projection on many different surfaces at the same time, and there are projections on every aspect of the set. “There are images all the way through the opera,” says Grimmer. “There is something happening almost all the time. We can cover the entire stage with large landscapes or isolate specific areas. A lot of the images are weather-related with rain, clouds, and a storm sequence, while other scenes look like Japanese prints.” Crouch's set design includes fabric mountains, as well as multiple objects hanging in the air, as if part of an explosion.

“We started our research and gathering and sorting of content about a year ago,” says Grimmer, “and spent three weeks in the theatre before the premiere, finishing a few minutes before the 7:30pm curtain on opening night. The images are scientific, yet abstract, and help remind the audience of the reality of the story and the gravity of the subject matter.”

Warner and Grimmer also worked closely with MacDevitt on transitions and color palettes. “The images and the lighting work hand-in-hand,” says Grimmer. “Sometimes we drop back or vice versa to create balanced stage pictures. The projections provide a visual underscore for the opera.”

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