Sunday, January 13, 2008

John Adams's Dr. Atomic @ Lyric Opera

Doctor AtomicI don't think I've ever posted about a live opera on this blog, so here's a first go at it. Last night I trooped down to the Lyric Opera of Chicago to see contemporary American composer John Adams's most recent opera, Doctor Atomic. The opera, whose "found text" libretto, staging and direction are the handiwork of impresario Peter Sellars, was first mounted in San Francisco in 2005, and it explores the experiences over monthlong span of several of the central figures involved in the first testing of the atomic bomb, the "Trinity" test, in the New Mexico desert. The protagonist is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, but the opera's other important figures include fellow physicist Edward Teller; General Leslie Groves; Oppenheimer's anxious wife Kitty; the weatherman, Jack Hubbard; and the bombastic General Leslie Groves; and Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer's Tewa (Native American) nursemaid.

I should begin by noting my affinity for post-Romantic operas, and in particular for operas (and musicals of operatic cast) from the era of early Modernism on. The sorts of operas that drive purists crazy, such as Debussy's aria-less Pelleas et Mélisande; Bartók's brief and spellbinding Duke Bluebeard's Castle; Schoenberg's unfinished, conceptual masterpiece about the unrepresentability of God, Moses und Aron; Berg's formally intricate case study in pre-World War II decadence, Lulu; Joplin's unique African-American essay in the form, Treemonisha; and Britten's homoerotic homage, Billy Budd, are among the works I cherish, but I also like very current operatic fare, especially works that push opera's aesthetic conventions, such as Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten, Steve Reich's Three Tales, and Anthony Davis's Amistad. One of my works, which perhaps drew me to the genre, is Adams's 1987 opera, Nixon in China. It is one of the few very recent operas to have entered the repertoire. In this work, Adams extends his post-minimalist musical language to match Alice Goodman's exceptional libretto, and together they create a powerful portrayal of the soon-to-be disgraced former president's groundbreaking trip to China. Some of the arias, such as Nixon's "News, news," or the reception's choral exchange "Cheers!" have been derided by critics, but the opera also drew immediate praise and has continued to be one of the most popular works of the last 40 years. Its accessibility, blend of humor and drama, biting set pieces, inventive tunefulness, and moments of masterful orchestration and dramatization, such as when Pat Nixon longs for the music of home (California), or Mrs. Mao's aria demonstrating her personal power, probably account for its enduring popularity.

Oppenheimer beholding the bomb, "Doctor Atomic"In Dr. Atomic, Adams shows that his grasp of composition, and in particular scene-painting and orchestration, has only grown in the intervening years. With the exception of the musique concrète tracks that open and close the opera's two halves, the music exemplifies Adams's mastery, both of 20th century music in general and of how to write operatic music in a contemporary vein. Whether it aims for mimesis, as when he portrays the thunder and electrical storms that are threatening the bomb test, or the spectacular choral set pieces, such as the second half's (Act 2, Scene iii) "O, Master" chorus, excerpted from the Bhagavad Gita, which to me was one of the most breathtaking in the entire work, or the arias, by Oppenheimer, his wife, Pasqualita, or Hubbard, who manages to lyricize a weather report (!), Adams never falters--and, I must add, never did the singers, who were on the whole extraordinary. The essentially tonal composition bears Adams's usual fingerprints, eschewing neo-Romanticism in favor of a more complex, pungent assemblage of styles, with moments of hypnotic repetition, contrapuntality and crossrhythms, passages of jazz-like stylings, and controlled dissonance. In fact, it was often the music, along with the sets and staging, that provided what little drama the opera had to offer, and elevated the libretto's inherent poetry, or rather reminded me that I was listening to the words of Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, Donne, among other texts, set to music. There were moments where I simply closed my eyes and listened to the music to relieve the tedium of the libretto, which seemed to stretch on and on unnecessarily.

Although the story itself is inherently dramatic--the government and military are racing to test an atomic bomb to drop on Japan, to end the Second World War, and many of the key scientists involved with it are torn, ethically, morally, emotionally, about their contributions and the possible aftermath of a successful weapon--the libretto, which derives not only from poetry but from declassified government documents, blunts this by telling too much, and thus becoming explanatory, or striving for profundity, which runs aground the shoals of obviousness. In such instances, the narrative's drama sputters, but as in some other operas with little narrative or drama, such as Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, there are no compensatory character arcs or dramatization, and so Oppenheimer himself remains enigmatic, while Kitty's anxiety, as it never abates, becomes static and tiresome. Then there is the issue of length--too much is, well, too much. Even a marvelous moment, like Oppenheimer's aria based on Donne's "Holy Sonnet No. XIV," "Batter my heart, three-personed God," provoked by his appreciation of the inhuman power the "gadget" he has helped create, just drags on too long. Or perhaps it wouldn't have felt too long if there weren't so many other such moments, where Sellars seems incapable of condensing the text, thus blunting whatever propulsive force the music and narrative manage to generate. The opera runs 3 and 1/2 hours, though it felt like 6; a half-hour of the Robert Wilson-esque quasi-avant-garde processions to literalize the complicated temporality (on figurative and literal levels) and silent moments could easily be cut, and many of the arias could be truncated or at least condensed, saving as much of Adams's music as possible. By the end of the second half, I think the only thing keeping me from bolting was the music and the recognition that I ought not miss the moment of the test, which I'll say disappointed musically and performatively. (By this point a number of the older opera patrons sitting near me had already fled.)

"Doctor Atomic" setThe singers are, as I say above, outstanding, and often wring the most piercing moments out of their arias. Particular notable were Leslie Rivera (what a voice!) as Kitty Oppenheimer, Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, and James Maddalena, the original Richard Nixon in Adams's earlier opera, as Jack Hubbard, the beleaguered weatherman. Eric Owens, playing General Leslie Groves, manages to infuse his ranting-like near-Sprechstimme with real passion, making me wish he'd been given better material to work with. I was less enchanted by Meredith Arwady as Pasqualita; at times she appears to struggle to sustain a continuous rising or descending line, and sounds off key, or perhaps this is how the part was written, though it sticks out beside Rivera's mellifluous declamations. The directing and staging mostly succeed; Sellars is on firmest ground here, and the subtle and unexpected lighting shifts, the always-evocative modular sets, and the lively corps de ballet, match the music and nearly rescue things. One enjoyable side element to the evening was that the grand-daughter of the woman sitting next to me was one of the dancers. She told me she'd come up from Orlando to see her granddaughter dance, and eagerly pointed her out whenever the corps took the stage.

I left the opera house feeling much the way I did when I first went to see John Harbison's The Great Gatsby during its first run at the Met: that I'd heard some great music, but it was expended on a thematically very interesting, above-average, but not great, project. I'm not sure how much tinkering Adams and Sellars will attempt; I missed Sellars's pre-opera talk, but I've read that he acknowledges the libretto's faults, so perhaps they will figure out how to tighten it up if it continues to travel. Cutting the explanatory material, which might mean snipping some of Groves's part, and distilling Kitty Oppenheimer's scenes should be the first order of business. Mirroring the second-half's "O, Master" chorus in the first would also be a good idea, to punch things up a bit. The ending also could use some work; not representing the bomb blast orchestrally is, I admit, brilliant, but I'm not sure the electronic substitute is enough. It almost felt predictable, and kitschy. As it is, I would still recommend anyone interested in contemporary see Doctor Atomic, just to hear Adams's opera, but I'd add that they shouldn't be surprised if they find themselves glancing at their watch, twiddling their thumbs, and wanting to scream get on with it during some of its many, unnecessary longueurs. It's in Chicago until January 19, and moves to the Met in 2008 (they should start with Nixon in China, but then who am I to suggest anything to the Met...).


  1. Hey John! We've met once or twice around the dept. My friend was googling the opera and found this blog. Just went to see it on Tuesday and totally agree with you on almost every point. Felt like 6 hrs indeed. Second act was excruciating, yet musically interesting. I think I'll link my blog to this post if you don't mind, spare me the effort of writing on this one!

  2. Hi Heidi, thanks for dropping in. Your blog is great, and I'll be checking it out a lot more. Please do link to this post; that's perfectly fine. And let's do say hello around the department (when I'm not huffing up to the 4th floor!)

  3. It's Jessica Riviera. "Batter My Heart" is the length it is because Adams is following musical conventions of setting text to verses. Each verse needs music, basically, and they're interrupted by an interlude. The dancers don't look like Robert Wilson; they're much less jerky, and not static.