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Oppie in New York

Doctor Atomic

an opera in two acts by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars, directed by Penny Woolcock, with stage design by Julian Crouch
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, October 13–November 13, 2008
mendelsohn_1-011509.jpg
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The Manhattan Project laboratory and staff in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in Act 1 of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, directed by Penny Woolcock at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, October 2008

1.

Opera, that most extreme of the staged arts, has always made a routine of spectacularly violent endings—inventive homicides and suicides (poisoned bouquets, seppuku), grandiose self-immolations, a post-nuptial psychotic spree, even, as in Dialogues of the Carmelites, the occasional mass-guillotining. But it’s probably fair to say that, in terms of sheer destructive power, no finale could ever be as grand as the one that brings John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Doctor Atomic to its close: it ends with a nuclear detonation. In some, rather obvious ways, that climax comes as no surprise; in others—not least, the way in which this opera relates to the rest of Adams’s work—it’s very startling indeed.

It’s no surprise because the opera—which seeks to dramatize certain events leading up to the first successful test of an atom bomb, in July 1945, and to ponder the ethical and political questions inevitably raised by that event—premiered several years ago, in 2005, at the San Francisco Opera (which had commissioned an “American Faust” in 1999). In the intervening years, it has been the object of much enthusiastic comment by critics, by opera-lovers, and, because of Adams’s stature as a leading American composer of serious music and particularly of opera, by a wider circle of commentators than that which typically greets new classical music.

More recently and locally, it’s been hard not to hear about Doctor Atomic in great detail, about its earnest and high-minded engagement with its weighty subject, if you happen to live in New York City, where the Metropolitan Opera presented the opera in a brand-new staging this fall, and where, by my count, no fewer than a dozen events around town, intended to provide audiences with some extracurricular vehicles for mulling over the Manhattan Project and its cultural fallout, were presented around the time of the new production’s premiere in October. There were lectures at the Met (“Atomic Fallout: The World of the Bomb”), a number of symposia at the City University of New York (“Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project”), even a staging of a one-act play called Uranium + Peaches. To be sure, these events were designed to make the local premiere of a work that was no longer new into a significant event in the city’s cultural life; then again, it’s unlikely that the Met’s imminent new production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a melodic nineteenth-century meringue about a pretty village girl whose tendency to sleepwalk gets her into trouble, will generate new plays and academic symposia featuring Nobel Prize winners.

So a lot of people already know about this opera. But the real reason the ending of Doctor Atomic won’t come as a surprise to any audience has less to do with the history or circumstances of its various productions, or even with its larger subject matter, than with something intrinsic to the work itself. I’m not referring to the historical facts that it treats, which to some extent must dictate the plot (the test was indeed successful; the bomb did go off early that July morning in 1945). Nor do I have in mind the anxious conviction, voiced by various characters in the scenes leading up to the climactic explosion, that the bomb had to go off. (Their certainty that the “gadget,” once created, had to be used, however questionable the ends, serves to underscore a larger, dark theme: the Faustian dangers inherent in mankind’s ceaseless yearning to know the secrets of Nature—to say nothing of the dangers inherent in man’s own violent nature. “The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used,” one of the characters wryly sings.)

The inevitability, rather—the sense, which you have from the moment the curtain goes up, that all this has to end with a bang—stems from certain age-old conventions of the theatrical genre to which this theater piece belongs. And here lies the big surprise. For the great problem with Doctor Atomic —a work of intermittent beauties, whose ambitions curdle too often into pretensions, whose claims to delve into agonizing ethical questions are belied by bien pensant clichés—is that, whatever its earnest aspirations, the genre in question isn’t the one the creators had in mind. It is, if anything, one you tend to associate with melodramatic goings-on and even happy endings; and hence is one to which both the composer and the subject are fatally ill-suited.

2.

Adams has never been attracted to the big emotional and dramatic bangs that opera conventionally delivers. He prefers, instead, to create subtle musical meditations on moments in history when ideologies and personalities intersect. His first opera, Nixon in China (1987), artfully contraposed the grandiose public side of Nixon’s history-making visit to Beijing—the banquets, the tours of Chinese factories, a performance of Mme Mao’s ideologically strident The Red Detachment of Women (“Divide the landlord’s property / Take nothing from the tenantry”)—with the private emotions of the participants. These juxtapositions could be striking and sometimes oddly poignant. In Act 3, immediately after Chou En-Lai talks about the “rivers of blood” necessary to wash away the sufferings of China’s downtrodden peasantry, Pat Nixon tenderly recalls the days when she and Dick were impoverished newlyweds: “I squeezed your paycheck till it screamed.”

The intertwining of the real blood and the metaphorical screams is an apt symbol for the way Nixon worked, and indeed the way in which Adams’s subsequent works for the stage functioned too. Rather than “dramatizing” historic events the way other composers, working with other librettists, have done over the years—by compressing well-known events into a three- or five-act plot and clearly, sometimes reductively, delineating the agendas, desires, and psychologies of the major players (you think of Donizetti’s Tudor operas or Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, or even Un Ballo in Maschera)—this composer, working first with the poet Alice Goodman and then with the director Peter Sellars as his rather unconventional librettists, likes to set ideology and personality suggestively side by side, allowing the message to rise up, as it were, from the spaces in between. That message, more often than not, has to do with the exquisite but also uncomfortable ways in which history and ideology clash with, and sometimes crush, individuals and their emotions. Adams’s musical idiom—subtle, complex, eschewing dogmas and schools, not as strongly melodic, or sentimental, as that of his peer Philip Glass—is the ideal vehicle for his larger preoccupations as a composer of works for the stage. (Which is to say, his music never tells you what to think.)

Certainly this technique well served the composer’s second major work, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which took the Achille Lauro hijacking as a vehicle for pondering war and peace, Israel and Palestine. The title itself, which incorporates an ordinary, even slightly whimsical-sounding Ashkenazi Jewish surname into a heroic formula, is a rich promise of what is to come. Here even more than in Nixon, Adams relies heavily on unemphatic but pointed juxtapositions rather than highly dramatic interactions. Particularly successful is the way in which the set of paired choruses—of Palestinian exiles and Jewish exiles, of Night and Day, of Desert and Ocean—suggest the notion of irreducible conflicts between hopelessly opposed entities. These hauntingly beautiful sections of the score can only stand side by side; there is no interaction between them, no resolution.

The same is true for the individual characters—the hijackers, the ship’s captain, a handful of bystanders, the Klinghoffers themselves—each of whom is given long monologues in which points of view, or versions of events, are expressed, but few of whom actually talk to each other. And as in Nixon in China, what they’re musing about is often idiosyncratic, personal, private, having nothing ostensibly to do with the wrenching events taking place or the grand ideologies that motivate them. The captain at one point spends a great deal of time reflecting on the way in which cruise liners are less like ships than like hotels.

Drama” in the conventional sense, then, is no more the order of the day in Klinghoffer than it was in Nixon. To his credit, Adams is aware of this, and has indeed described this work as being more like a Bach oratorio or Passion than like a conventional opera; as in the earlier work, the static form brilliantly serves the content, which is about stasis, too. And here again, an unemphatic musical form serves the content extremely well. There’s a remarkable moment in which the body of Leon Klinghoffer is given an aria (“May the Lord God/And His creation/Be magnified/In dissolution”) set to music that’s meant to evoke Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie; a lot of Klinghoffer has that work’s tentative delicacy.

To judge from his public comments and, now, his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction,* Adams may be one of the most genial and quietly reflective operatic composers in history. Despite the well-known tensions between composer and librettist (hardly the first on record), which resulted in an eventual break, his tastes and temperament were ideally served, in his first two operas, by Alice Goodman, whose librettos were characterized by a disdain for “big moments.” (Another duo—Verdi and Piave, say—might have chosen actually to portray the death of Klinghoffer in The Death of Klinghoffer ; Adams and Goodman relegated it to an offstage aside.) There’s a low-key quality even in her versification. In both works, a metrically simple unit (fairly strict iambic dimeters in Nixon, looser dimeters in much of Klinghoffer) and a pervasive use of rhymes based on approximate assonances and consonances (“We have at times been enemies/We still have differences, God knows”) nicely reflected the qualities of the music, which oscillate between formal rigor (Adams started out a minimalist) and an easy-going eclecticism.

Hence a certain brainy taste for abstraction, a disdain for cheap emotional thrills seemed to mark the librettist as much as it did the composer. Still, you sometimes wondered whether the abstraction didn’t occasionally get out of hand, given that these are works for the stage—a place that can bear only so much metaphysical musing before the desire to see something happen pre- vails. “Thought,/The sailor’s consolation, is/Surely the night’s analysis/Of the impressions of the day,” Klinghoffer ‘s captain observes in his opening aria—something an audience doesn’t need to hear, since the aria itself should provide the analysis in question. There could be a precious self-consciousness to the Adams–Goodman collaboration.

The debate over the relative importance of the musical and dramatic elements in opera is an ancient and very possibly otiose (and certainly irresolvable) one; to my mind, if you put a few thousand people in front of a stage, they’re eventually going to want to see something going on there. What that something should look like is fairly self-evident in, say, The Marriage of Figaro (“where people are being caught in the bedroom and hiding in a closet,” as Adams said in a documentary about the making of Doctor Atomic, his point being that his own work isn’t like that), but “what is going on,” in that old-fashioned sense, is not always so clear in Adams’s operas, with their implied rather than enacted conflicts and themes, their moral preoccupations suggested rather than actually dramatized. For this reason, Adams has been lucky in having the ingenious Peter Sellars as the director of his works. Sellars’s deep sense of theatricality, his visual inventiveness, the way he can isolate the elements in a musical or dramatic text that can, in fact, be staged have served Adams well. No one who saw Sellars’s production of Nixon in China is likely to forget the opening scene depicting the arrival of Air Force One, a moment that provided a perfect visual analogue to the thrilling sense of expectancy in Adams’s music. It was the Adams/Sellars pairing, not the Adams/Goodman pairing, that made the composer’s first two works feel like drama.

  1. *

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

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