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On Feb. 22, 2020, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra held its first hologram concert with renowned and influential opera singer Maria Callas (who died in 1977) at the Orpheum.Handout

Part of the magic of a concert, in addition to hearing the music live of course, is being in the same room as the musician herself. Breathing the same air as the artist whose recorded music has meant enough to you that you have splurged on this ticket. Sharing oxygen and an experience with them for a couple of hours.

It is one of the reasons when I first began hearing about hologram concerts that I scoffed. A gimmick, I thought. A money grab. You can’t share an experience with a digital fabrication, no matter how real it might seem.

Then I spoke with Eimear Noone about the Maria Callas hologram project, Callas in Concert, produced by Base Hologram, which Noone has been conducting all over the world, each time with a local live orchestra.

Noone was fresh off becoming the first woman to conduct at the Academy Awards (“I suppose it was time,” she told me). She addressed my skepticism, which I was frank about. Turns out, she shared it, initially.

“I wanted reassurance that her legacy was being handled with care,” she said from Ireland, where she was born and raised. The script gave her goosebumps at times and convinced her that this “wasn’t just a frou-frou kind of showstopper thing,” she said.

“And I saw the piece as a sort of a love letter to her and a way of honouring her legacy for future generations.”

Callas, born in New York in 1923, was a renowned soprano whose vocal technique and dramatic interpretations were iconic – an overused word, but for Callas, it certainly applies. La Divina, as she came to be known, died in 1977.

“For me, it is incredibly important to share this woman’s legacy with people my age and younger who would have never gotten to see her perform,” Noone told me.

Eimear Noone, seen here on Feb. 22, 2020, is fresh off becoming the first woman to conduct at the Academy Awards.Handout

So I went to the Orpheum in Vancouver on Saturday night with what I hoped was an open mind.

After a Rossini overture, Maria Callas materialized on stage, through the magic of technology, and sang her long-dead heart out.

The audience gasped. Verdi’s Macbeth, Bizet’s Carmen – there was Callas with that magnificent stage presence you cannot get a true sense of by simply listening to a recording, and that big acrobatic miracle of a voice that pushed the bounds of human possibility. (Like, I suppose, this holographic concert experience.)

Callas’s voice came from her recordings; backed live by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Noone.

It was cool. But it was also weird. I never lost myself to the point where I thought she was there – that would have been crazy – but I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Ophelia’s mad scene from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet and of course Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma were particularly affecting.

The applause for Hologram Callas throughout was warm, but abbreviated, which was one of the less successful aspects of the show – the digital diva was still bowing and acknowledging the audience after the clapping had really stopped, giving the impression that she was asking for more (of course when she was live, those ovations would have gone on and on, understandably). Noone tried to cue the crowd by applauding herself. But it was a teeny bit awkward.

And at times, there was a lip-sync feel to what was going on, because the sound was obviously not emerging from the mouth of this woman who wasn’t really there.

But it’s a feat for sure – not just of technology; with Noone conducting a new orchestra to a recording by this reach-for-the-stars soprano that cannot be adjusted. In fact, it made me a bit anxious as I watched, worried about the precision timing necessitated by this format. (I had nothing to worry about.)

And so, it was heartening that at the end of the night, the biggest ovation went not to fake Maria Callas before she faded to black, or even to the charismatic international conducting sensation Noone, but to the musicians of the VSO. Bravo.

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