Saturday, January 12, 2008

Doctor Atomic—my first opera

For someone who jokingly calls herself a pretentious dilettante, I'm not very good at being one. Despite my appreciation of music, I have never liked ballet or opera. If pressed to articulate why not, I might say that both seem to me to be very artificial forms of expression. I like music, I like dance, and I like song, but when music is combined with song or dance and a story, it loses its connection to life as I know it and becomes a pretense, like much of the modern art that holds no appeal for me, either.

That can't be the full explanation, however, as I do love a good stage or movie musical, and seven mountain men dancing at a barn raising or a silent film star singing and dancing with his umbrella partner aren't realism, either. I'm also fond of symbolism, allegory, myth, and things that go bump in the night, that is, I'm not limited to the realism category.

There's also the troublesome fact that I've seen one ballet (The Nutcracker, many years ago, when my employer provided us with free tickets) and no opera except for brief bits on TV, so my dislike has been based more on theory than on experience.

Now, however, I've seen an opera—Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A friend who is an opera fan and Lyric season ticket holder had bought these tickets in addition to her subscription series. She thought that her husband might like a break from the opera, especially since Doctor Atomic is a modern opera, which generally is not to his taste.

Who am I to turn down a $176 ticket that I couldn't afford to see something I've never seen?

I liked it. I would have liked an hour or so less of it better, I admit. Nearly three and one-half hours of sitting, with one break, tests my powers of physical endurance. Still, I liked it.

Doctor Atomic is the story of the race to build and test the "Gadget," a discordantly innocuous name for the A-bomb. With a few exceptions, Peter Sellars adapted his libretto from the quotations and writings of the participants, as well as excerpts from poetry.

The scientists are headed by Renaissance man J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, baritone), who loves and quotes the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, while General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens, bass-baritone) leads the military. They were an odd pair in more than the obvious ways; during the project Oppenheimer's weight dropped to less than 100 pounds, while General Groves' photos reveal a distinct portliness that stretches his uniform to its limits. In Doctor Atomic, the testy general, concerned that Oppenheimer is going to have a breakdown, sings ruefully about his lifelong weight issues and his diet journal, in which he records transgressions such as two brownies and three pieces of chocolate cake.

Oppenheimer's foil is Hungarian scientist Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, baritone), a cynic whose humor is black (before the test, he offers the team suntan lotion) and whose position is ambivalent. Pacifist Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn, tenor) anticipates the 1960s activist, with his petition demanding that at the least Japan be warned of what is being planned.

On the principle that behind every good man is a woman, and behind every good opera is a soprano, Kitty Oppenheimer (Jessica Rivera) brings a human counterpoint to her husband's outwardly stoic determination to complete the Gadget and the test. Meredith Arwady (contralto) plays Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer's Indian nurse whose deepest tones seem wrenched from the heart of the earth mother herself. Military meteorologist Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena, baritone) offers most of the little comic relief as General Groves demands better weather conditions and threatens the junior officer with insubordination for refusing to promise to provide it.

Absurd as the general's orders are, they are no more so than the very concept of an opera based on the development of the A-bomb seems to be. On the other hand, what better or bigger subject for an American opera? Like Frankenstein and other stories of man's exploration of god-like powers, Doctor Atomic hovers between the genius of creation and the ethics of destruction. Oppenheimer understands the awesome power of the idea that he must make concrete, but disingenuously leaves it to the "men in Washington" and their wisdom to decide whether to unleash the bomb's powers. These are enormous themes, carried over from the nineteenth century's fascination with science; defining much of twentieth century life with its Cold War fears and anxieties; and seeping into the twenty-first century, when it is no longer just "men in Washington" and their communist counterparts but mad tyrants and terrorists whose fingers may hover over the nuclear button.

Oppenheimer, who dubs the test "Trinity," calls upon the three-personed God of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

It takes poetry from throughout the ages, from the Bhagavad Gita to John Donne to Muriel Rukeyser, to address the timelessness and power of creation and destruction and man's responsibility for both. Even as Oppenheimer, Teller, and Wilson grapple with ethics and expediency, targets are being identified for the "psychological impact" their destruction will have on the Japanese people—and on the watching world. Even as the team waits for the weather to clear, they cannot be certain that Trinity won't burn off the Earth's entire atmosphere. Somehow it is a risk that must be taken.

In the opera's only romantic scene, Kitty Oppenheimer seems to represent the creative (and neglected) power of sex, while in Act II she seems driven to near-madness by visions of destruction (Rukeyser: "In the flame-brilliant midnight, promises arrive, singing to each of use with tongues of flame . . ."), even as Pasqualita, an Indian Gaia, nurtures her and her children—the future. Kitty quotes Rukeyser:

Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war
Our conflics carry creation and its guilt . . .

Pasqualita, quoting Rukeyser, is prophetic:

The winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.
News came on the frost, "The dead are on the march!"

Doctor Atomic ends on what appears to be an anticlimax. The ensemble stretches out in self-defensive positions, much as children of the 1960s were taught do during air raid drills, save for two technicians who monitor the instruments. The test goes off quietly, leaving in its wake an intact atmosphere and a woman's voice speaking in Japanese. We know what happened. Or do we? The history of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy is not yet over, and their legacy is not yet known.

As might be expected, the staging is stark, and so is the music. There are no lush orchestral moments, and little soprano and tenor brightness. The music is arrhythmic, somewhat discordant in places, and thoroughly modern. Various instruments are used as voices, and the singers are used as instruments, occasionally struggling a bit with what John Adams' composition calls upon their voices to do. Conductor Robert Spano, whose intense face I could see clearly from my fourth-row seat, holds the orchestra together nicely throughout the nearly three and one-half hours.

I am not sure that Doctor Atomic has made me love opera, especially as it suffers from two faults that I associate with the art form—it is overly long and it is overwrought. I liked it, however, and to be fair in my judgment I will need to experience a more traditional production—one whose music and arias may stir my emotions as Doctor Atomic stimulated my intellect and interest in the fate of humanity.

Doctor Atomic
Music: John Adams
Libretto and direction: Peter Sellars


  1. For a person who hates ballet and opera, this was a marvelous review. But it makes me wonder how you came to the conclusion that you hate opera if you have never seen one before.

    Opera is an acquired taste. Once embraced it is addictive--all the nuts going to Bayreuth and such.

    I would probably never listen to a recording of this opera in particular. It is truly something you have to witness.

    Perhaps because I am a musician, or because I know so many of the members of the orchestra, I was, and always have been mesmerized by the pit and the conductor. That was an important part of the spectacle for me. Fortunately I am close enough to see all.

    Thanks for your insights. Go see another opera.

  2. Thanks for the feedback—it made me go back and correct a bunch of typos and correct the spelling of Mr. Maddalena's name!

    Although I am a musician only in the sense I can read notes and make them occur on a clarinet, and cut my teeth on grade school and high school bands, I am always fascinated by orchestras and how they work together. Mr. Spano was very quick to give credit to the musicians, which I like to see, and the audience the night I went was as enthusiastic over them as the other performers.

    I'll see another opera if my friend offers. :)