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Oppie in New York

Terrence McCarthy
Gerald Finley (center) as J. Robert Oppenheimer with the atom bomb at the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in Act 1 of the San Francisco Opera production of Doctor Atomic, directed by Peter Sellars, September 2005


The Met premiere of this opera has a very different staging from the one Sellars created for the San Francisco world premiere, and it’s hard not to think that this is why a lot of the weaknesses you might not have noticed are so starkly exposed. But weaknesses they are, and they are serious.

Doctor Atomic is in trouble from the start precisely because the story Adams wants to tell is, potentially, more like a traditional drama—with real conflicts between real characters, real choices and crises to be fought over—than those earlier works, and the way he has chosen to frame this story is at odds with the story itself. In trying to squeeze Oppenheimer’s story into a Faustian mold, one with a more or less conventional hero (or antihero), this opera must necessarily eschew the subtly polyphonic, indeed choral texture that characterized the dramaturgy of the early works.

One major problem is the main character (this, in a composer who doesn’t ordinarily like “main characters” to begin with). In an essay for the program of the Met’s new Doctor Atomic, John Adams recalls, with a typical reflectiveness, the circumstances of the commission of the new work:

In 1999 I received a call from Pamela Rosenberg, who was just beginning her tenure as general director of the San Francisco Opera. She had a provocative suggestion, that I compose an “American Faust” opera. Her historical figure of choice to embody that character was none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer. In Pamela’s mind, Oppenheimer’s decision to accept the US Army’s invitation to lead the Manhattan Project and develop the atomic bomb had a latter-day “pact with the devil” implication. Oppenheimer’s eventual fall from political grace and public humiliation mirrored the Faust myth.

I might have been a little uncomfortable with the thought of taking on a myth as familiar and universally celebrated as Faust, but Pamela’s mention of Oppenheimer rang a bell with an urgency I’d not felt since Peter Sellars had popped the Nixon and Mao question to me nearly 20 years earlier…. Despite my misgivings about the Faust connection, I answered Pamela’s request in the affirmative almost immediately….

The misgivings were well grounded. In his essay, the composer goes on to write about Oppenheimer, who was so famously complex, so enigmatic even to those who knew him, as a “magnetic figure for dramatic treatment,” but the qualities in “Oppie” that clearly attract this extremely cerebral composer (“highly cultured…immensely literate…fluent [in] German, French, and Dutch”) are not qualities you can, or would even want to, dramatize. Nor was the Oppenheimer of the period that Adams, working here with Sellars as his librettist, has chosen to focus on—the four weeks leading up to the test of the first atomic bomb—tormented, confronted by soul-searing choices of the kind that would have made a good Faustian drama. (The work’s real nineteenth-century model, anyway, isn’t so much Goethe’s Faust as Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, an Enlightenment figure whose misplaced faith in scientific creation leads inevitably, tragically, to complete destruction.) As the opera itself rather confusedly acknowledges, what anxiety there was, in the Oppenheimer of the month before the test, was about whether “the gadget” would work. In an interview he gave for Wonders Are Many, a documentary about the making of Doctor Atomic, the physicist Freeman Dyson, who knew Oppenheimer at Princeton, stated unequivocally that “there is no doubt at all that Oppenheimer never regretted having built the bomb and he thought that the mistakes were all made afterwards.”

In his program essay, you feel Adams’s lack of conviction about his nonhero. At one point he observes that Oppenheimer had many leftish friends before the war, and goes on to suggest, with what seems to me to be a telling tentativeness, that the scientist’s decision to throw his lot in with the Army and the Manhattan Project therefore “had some aspects of a Faustian bargain,” but this seems pretty much of a stretch, and anyway the business about the implicit betrayal of the left-leaning friends occurs outside the time frame that Adams and Sellars have chosen to dramatize, and isn’t mentioned in the opera. The same can be said for Oppenheimer’s postwar humiliation by the official hearing that stripped him of his security clearance, in which his Los Alamos colleague Edward Teller played an unattractive part—a drama of misplaced ideals and personal betrayal that would, indeed, have been ideal fodder for a traditional operatic dramatization.

So Doctor Atomic has at its center a historical figure who—at least during the period treated in this opera—resists a certain kind of dramatic exploration, the Verdian psychologizing monologue that would have brought the tormented scientist character’s inner life to the surface. (Oppie’s big aria of anguish feels like it’s been parachuted into the proceedings, and fails to suggest a persuasively textured personality.)

But then, how could there be any such psychological exploration in a work that has no libretto? Whatever the problems with her abstruse lyricism, Alice Goodman’s texts for Adams’s first two operas provided an armature the composer could work off of. (Adams, indeed, is a creator who seems to thrive on resistance, on the traction you get in dealing with other creative personalities. One measure of this is how splendid his settings of verse always are, as is the case with the arias in Doctor Atomic that are set to lyrics by Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, and Baudelaire, poems to which Oppenheimer was drawn. These very beautiful numbers are the only musically memorable moments in the opera.) And Goodman’s librettos themselves had structure, however nontraditional that structure may have been. Nixon in particular is intriguingly wrought, with its progression from public ceremony in Act 1, to a brilliant interweaving of public and private in Act 2—Pat Nixon gets so caught up in a performance of Mme Mao’s Red Detachment that she tries to intervene in the action—to its weary, very moving bedtime privacy of Act 3.

By contrast, Doctor Atomic, its two acts divided roughly equally between domestic scenes involving Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, and “political” scenes featuring the various scientists at the test site, is composed of “found texts”—citations from books about atomic arms, documents, letters, and (for the characters’ emotional moments) the poems—that are meant, by means of artful (and too often arch) juxtapositions, to convey the larger issues at stake: the ethics of nuclear warfare, the nature and limits of a science gone awry. “I don’t write,” Sellars told the director of Wonders Are Many. “What I did here is assemble.” One unfortunate result of this choice is that much of what Adams had to work with is odiously flat to the ear, and comes off as impossibly portentous when set to reverent music. “All the menus are meticulous drawn up down to the last calorie. In this particular diet the average number of calories per day is only a thousand and twenty,” Oppenheimer’s overweight boss, General Leslie Groves, drones on, in a moment that makes you nostalgic for the rarefied Ms. Goodman.

Far worse, the text of Doctor Atomic does feel like something merely assembled, rather than meaningfully shaped, with the result that the work has an approximate, sometimes unfinished feel. Again and again, moments in this story that cried out for profound treatment were allowed to pass by unexplored, presumably because there wasn’t a “found text” that dealt with them. A good part of the first scene in Act 1 is meant to convey the anxiety of the tense people working on the project; among other things, we hear from a character that

several of the younger scientists are talking wildly about failure…their fears are infecting the rest of the camp…two hours ago one young scientist became hysterical and had to be removed under sedation.

The first time I heard this line I thought, why aren’t they showing us the hysterical young scientist—make him a character, give him an anguished aria? Similarly, the same scene wants to bring to the fore certain tensions between Oppenheimer—with his single-minded fixation on his work, meant to come across as morally irresponsible (“the nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington”)—and the young scientist Robert Wilson, who along with some others has concerns about the ethics of continuing with the development of the bomb now that Germany, whose race to develop a bomb was the justification for the US’s program, has surrendered. Each man says his piece (“You can’t stop now,” the younger man cries, “you want to see if it works!”) but there’s no real interaction here—no splendid and memorable duet wrenchingly articulating these opposed worldviews. Because it’s locked into its found texts, the opera is hamstrung—it can’t dramatize its own subject matter.

But then, I suspect that the creators of Doctor Atomic didn’t really think they needed to dramatize these and other matters, since they so clearly assume that any audience will share their genially antiwar, anti–nuclear weapons views. (At one point they seem to pay lip service to the undramatic fact that most of those working on the Manhattan Project were motivated by scientific eagerness or patriotism, or both. “This weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius, but by the arduous labor of thousands of noble men and women working for the safety of the country,” the chorus sings at one point; but it’s hard to tell whether the passage is intended as ironic.) You never really feel that there was any genuine soul-searching on the part of Adams and Sellars about the legitimacy of the use of “the gadget.” Whatever you think of the results, the decision to deploy the atomic bomb in Japan was not motivated solely by some Faustian (or Frankensteinian) desire to know nature’s secrets at any cost; as we know, there were many anguished debates about the strategic benefits of the bomb, many intelligent people who took seriously the claim that a decisive show of overwhelming new force would bring Japan to its knees and forestall the waste of many more lives.

Yet this crucial point receives almost no attention in Doctor Atomic—whose last audible sound, after that long-awaited detonation, is a tape recording of a Japanese woman’s voice pathetically asking for water. I found this shockingly manipulative. How much more wrenching this work would have been if, after sketching even superficially the controversies among the scientists, after poignantly contrasting Kitty Oppenheimer’s terror with her husband’s certainties, this work had ended with a chorus of the voices of some of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and airmen who believed their lives had been saved by that abrupt, awful ending of the war. But Doctor Atomic isn’t really interested in delving into genuinely disturbing aspects of the serious issues its subject raises. To my mind, it’s the least interesting kind of new work—one that tells audiences exactly what they want to hear.


Peter Sellars’s San Francisco production distracted you from the work’s inadequacies—gave you visual food for thought, even if his text wasn’t nourishing you. His production’s stark beauties (stunning desert skies that evoked the existential anguish that the libretto so often wants to convey, and can’t) and inventive physicality (quite often, as the characters were singing, even in intimate scenes, dancers in circular formations, vaguely suggesting electrons buzzing around nuclei, made you think about physical forces that are always at work in the universe—what the characters were thinking about, in other words) filled in the blanks left by the too-porous text.

With that we New Yorkers could only glumly compare the visually dreary and physically inert staging of Penny Woolcock—a production that makes you wonder about the future, non-Sellars potential of the work. What was there to see here that impressed itself in the mind’s eye? The by-now clichéd advent-calendar (or perhaps Hollywood Squares) set, its boxes filled with dancers occasionally contorting themselves into “anguished” poses? The visually confused mass of partially raised fabric at the back, meant I suppose to suggest the crew’s tents, which you kept thinking was going to be lifted to reveal something—anything? The almost total absence of meaningful movement on stage? The inexpressive direction given to the superb cast, so ill used here? (In the Act 1 closer “Batter My Heart,” Sellars in San Francisco put Gerald Finley, as Oppenheimer, into a series of contorted, almost kabuki poses—breathtakingly silhouetted against a blinding light coming from behind “the gadget,” backstage—that eloquently conveyed the aria’s anguish; in New York, he basically just belts it.) I saw this production twice, and I was hard pressed, the morning after each evening’s performance, to remember clearly a gesture, an image, an inflection. By my count, this rendering of Doctor Atomic —a work with serious problems to begin with—had a half-life of twelve hours.

Without a vital staging that might compensate for the work’s inadequacies, the thematic pretensions and formal failings of Doctor Atomic were all too starkly revealed. One thing that was likely to stick in your mind was the artificiality of the ways in which the work seeks to generate dramatic tension. One of these, of course, is that final countdown (here followed by a lackluster little flash); but even before that, you couldn’t help noticing how desperately the creators have strived to inject some tension into these slack proceedings. A historical fact of that first nuclear detonation was that, until the very last minute, the feasibility of the test was endangered by uncooperative weather. In Sellars’s non-libretto, endless references to the weather (“What the hell is wrong with the weather?” “I want to postpone a decision until our next weather conference at 2 a.m.,” “The rain has stopped!” “We have visibility of greater than sixty miles!”) are all too clearly intended to give the haphazard, “assembled” proceedings some forward momentum—to create dramatic suspense.

But whatever the weather problems at Los Alamos, in an opera with the grandiose ambitions of this one, with its solemn appeals to Native Americans’ wisdom and spectacular invocations of terrifying avatars of Vishnu, the nonstop talk about matters meteorological was unintentionally hilarious. (“I wasn’t expecting so much about the weather,” a woman standing in front of me in the refreshments line murmured to her husband.)

This creaky way of ratcheting up the tension, the constant reminders to the audience about the obstacles that have to be overcome in order for the work to reach its preordained conclusion, bring me back to my opening remark about the true theatrical nature of Doctor Atomic —about the essential incoherence of this work as a piece for the theater. During two performances at the Met, and then watching a DVD of the original San Francisco production, I kept trying to think of what this show was reminding me of; whatever it was, it wasn’t Hiroshima. And then it hit me. The temperamental director, brilliant but eccentric; the squabbling among the unruly and rambunctious crew members; the anxieties about the weather and other uncontrollable variables; the tremendous group effort to bring off a dazzling event—the real structural model for Doctor Atomic isn’t Faust, but rather a certain classic entertainment of a wholly different kind. At heart, it’s just a show about putting on a show. (Forget nuclear arms—think Babes in Arms.) And the reason it doesn’t work is that even as it tries so effortfully to build up tension about the grand finale, it’s insisting that the finale in question is one that nobody should have wanted to take place. Caught between the demands of its genre and the nostrums of its ideology, Doctor Atomic is a show that can’t—and doesn’t—go on.

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