Saturday, December 06, 2008

My Year of Opera (II): John Adams, "Doctor Atomic"

After my first foray into opera in a small setting, I followed up in October with John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" at the Metropolitan Opera House. The opera spends its two acts (the first taking place about a month before the test, the second taking place on the night/morning of the test) focusing on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and the crew around him as they prepare for the first test of the atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico. Adams and librettist Peter Sellars examine the personalities and conflicts (internal and external) among Oppenheimer, his wife, Gen. Leslie Groves, Edward Teller, Robert Wilson, (both scientists involved in the project), and the fictional indigenous Tewa maid Pasqualita, all giving an incredibly human face to the production of the atomic bomb that avoids any mythification or villification of the characters involved. Indeed, Sellars' libretto does a great job at showing things such as Oppenheimer's simultaneous self-importance and self-doubt or (in a darkly humorous moment) Groves' hubris as he insists, while a storm rages and threatens the test, that the weatherman had better make the skies clear up.

While the libretto gained strength throughout the opera, it was by far the weakest component to me. Choosing to base the material on a conglomeration of literary texts (poems by John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and others, as well as the Bhagavad Vita, which Oppenheimer quoted upon the successful first test) and transcripts from the notebooks of the scientists at the Trinity site. This led to a strange mixture between rather tedious scientific technical speech about the way the atomic bomb works, and abstract, metaphorical, fluid lyrics. These two approaches don't really mesh well, and lead to some rather boring lyrical passages, particularly in the first act (which is the more scientifically technical of the two). That said, the libretto does have its moments of brilliance, particularly in getting at the complexities of Oppenheimer mentioned above, and especially in the closing scene of the first act, in which Oppenheimer quotes Donne ("Batter my heart, three person'd God," from which the Trinity site gained its name), struggling with what his legacy will be as he confronts the bomb itself, a massive, wired ball hanging above the stage.

Adams' music, however, was a wonderful surprise. I was not terribly familiar with his work (though I've since begun checking out his works from the library, and find he's an amazing composer). I was really struck by Adams' score, a strange and wonderful style that incorporated elements of minimalism, eastern rhythmic styles, and the grandness of Aaron Copland. It didn't hit me at first, but that was probably more in part because I was focusing on the staging and set design and thinking to myself, "Really? Lyrics based on how an atomic reaction works?" To me, the music really hit its stride at the same time the libretto did - at the end of Act I. That said, I didn't think beforehand that the music was underwhelming in the way I thought the libretto was, so it would be great to go back and give another listen (unfortunately, Doctor Atomic is not out on CD yet). And Adams' music deals with a very tricky aspect quite deftly. In dealing with a subject matter that culminates in the detonation of an atomic bomb, which is unquestionably one of those moments in history where it's pretty easy to say, "things changed in strange ways from this moment on." Rather than trying to build up musically as dramatically as possible and falling flat, Adams takes the opposite approach of the musical anti-climax. As all the actors lay down on their bellies, goggles on, a countdown sounds, and Adams cuts the orchestra out, instead using a rumbling tape loop as the lights grow brighter and brighter (symbolizing the bomb). The opera ends with the rumble fading as a recording of a woman asking for water in Japanese repeats. The effect may not seem impressive on paper, but in person it was absolutely devastating, and its minimal "musique concrete" was exactly how the opera had to end, given the subject matter.

While my experience with "Oresteia" involved no "set design" in the traditional sense, "Doctor Atomic" was another matter entirely. The set design was a stark contrast to the sparse Xenakis work. The most important part of the set were two hulking, 3-story "walls" with individual compartments which at the beginning had the crude, actual photos of every scientist involved in the Manhattan Project; inside each compartment, there were members of the chorus working away at complex math and physics problems on chalkboards. These two "walls" were moved throughout the opera as necessary, but much of the action was based around them, whether it be as a scientific work area, the tower where the bomb was being assembled, or a showcase for the different indigenous animal symbols of the southwest during Pasqualita's solo (as a side note, Adams and Sellars did a nice job of incorporating the presence of indigenous peoples and their worldview without resorting to a "noble savage" stereotype). There was also a hulking mass of metal wires and rods covered in drapes in the background, rather successfully serving as the mountains of New Mexico as well as symbols of melted wreckage at the end of the opera. And in terms of symbolic importance, there was the massive bomb itself, which was lowered and raised throughout the performance, hanging over the stage as a constant reminder of its power and terror. I was really impressed by the whole design, and found it one of the stronger aspects of the opera (though other reviewers disagree: see here for a review that was underwhelmed).

My experience with "Doctor Atomic" was overall a joy, and other critics seemed to enjoy it, too (particularly the New York Times, which was glowing in its review and which included video selections from the production). However, the audience's reception was far more mixed. The applause at the end was delayed and, when it began, rather half-hearted. As I was leaving, I overheard two comments that really seemed to hit the general reception on the head: one woman said, "It was fine and all, but I thought I would have liked it more," while another gentleman in a different conversation commented to his friend, "It was worth seeing, but I wouldn't see it again." I simply did not share these feelings, though - it was quite a production, at least to me. It did not hit me in the same emotional way as the Xenakis production had, but that didn't take anything away from the overall experience. Indeed, in one way, it was way more personal than the Xenakis piece could ever be, because I have been to the Trinity site, and, having lived (and in many ways having "come of age" in New Mexico as I lived by myself for the first time), I couldn't stop thinking of the landscapes, the mountains, the expansive open-ness, and the Trinity site itself, giving the opera a particular and somewhat peculiar personal importance.