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


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.


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.


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.

This Issue

January 15, 2009