Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doctor Atomic

Like eating vegetables, I watched because it was good for me ...

When John Adams' opera, Doctor Atomic, aired on PBS recently I made myself sit through the entire production. Actually they showed it twice in my locale, and that was good because the first time I made it only to the end of Part 1. But a few days later I started over and this time took in the whole thing in a single sitting, all two hours and fifty-five minutes of it.

You may well ask, why was it so difficult? And I would add, why should it be so difficult? I mean, after all, opera is supposed to be entertainment, and we all love to be entertained, right? Three hours is the same length as a football or baseball game, and we have no trouble sitting through those even with commercials. The main problem of course is the same one that "modern" music has been struggling with for the past century -- namely that it has become, for most people, impossible to listen to.

Even for those of us who are disposed to listen and attempt to appreciate contemporary works, it can be a struggle. A couple of years ago my wife and I attended a production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes by the Santa Fe Opera. As much as we were enjoying the story and spectacle of it, we still had to call it quits by the end of the second act because it seemed interminable and was not compelling enough to keep us in our seats any longer. The next morning I joked with some friends that the piece might not be over yet. (For all I know, it may still be going on.)

In the case of Doctor Atomic, I confess I'm not a fan of John Adams as a composer. Though he is classed as a minimalist along with Philip Glass (whom I discussed last year), to me his works are far less minimal and at the same time far less melodic than those of Glass, making him harder to like. And this is really the heart of the matter -- opera began as song, and it is difficult to identify anything as song when it lacks a melody. And never mind how to define that, we all know when we hear one.

Ever since the Baroque era, opera buffs have been familiar with the difference between aria and recitative. The latter is the quasi-spoken form that was used in Bach's time to tell a prefatory story before the lyrical aria. Later, in the golden age of 19th century opera, recitative was used the way dialog is used in Broadway musicals, as intermissions between arias in which the story was moved along. By the time we had degenerated to Broadway, the pretense was abandoned and the dialog was merely spoken.

My beef with Adams is that his work gives the impression of being 100% recitative. Heaven help us if anything resembling a melody should break out by accident. So in spite of the praise I am about to give for the overall result, listeners are doomed to leave the theater with memories of many sounds but no tunes in their heads.

Are we childish to expect to walk away whistling to ourselves? I don't think it's so much to ask. Even Leonard Bernstein once claimed that his greatest ambition was to compose something so simply lyrical and memorable that audiences could sing it as they came out. Of course, Bernstein was something of an exception to the rule of inaccessibility in modern music, for while he produced a number of demanding orchestral works he also gave us West Side Story -- perhaps the nearest thing to a popular opera since Porgy and Bess -- and the whole point of his great Mass was the inclusion of popular musical forms ranging from folk and blues to jazz and rock.

The human impulse to melody is just too powerful to ignore. Even some rappers are beginning to (gasp!) actually sing in some of their, um, songs. Their fans, long starved on a diet of percussion and doggerel verse, can be expected to lap it up and demand more. So I rest my case.

And Finally About Our Story

With all that said, the spectacle of Doctor Atomic still leaves a powerful impression that makes it an important work. The invention of the Bomb is arguably the defining moment of the whole 20th century, spanning the period from Einstein's 1905 theory through the World Wars and the Cold War up to the threat of nuclear terrorism. The figure of Robert Oppenheimer has been compared to both Prometheus and Doctor Faustus. So how can we not be endlessly fascinated by the subject?

Part 1 takes place about a month before the test at the site named "Trinity" by Oppenheimer himself. No wonder then that this part ends with what seems to be everyone's favorite moment, a recitation of John Donne's sonnet, "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God." This soliloquy-like aria contains the closest thing to melody in the entire work -- in fact, while writing this a scrap of it came back to me, a sequence of a few notes that I could try to sing if asked. (But please don't.)

Elsewhere the libretto by Peter Sellars has an abundance of beautiful language drawn from sources as diverse as poets Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser and the Hindu scripture called the Bhagavad Gita. The latter is the source of Oppenheimer's famous remark upon the test blast: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Oddly, unless I missed it, that quotable line seems to be absent from the opera, perhaps omitted for dramatic reasons having to do with the ending.

The poetry competes with, and is balanced by, technical language quoted from government reports and other personal accounts of the time. I liked the contrast, and it was a good depiction of the dichotomy that existed within Oppenheimer himself, who was as complex a soul as any from the classical tragedies. Perhaps that's why the use of the cast as a Greek chorus is so effective, while also portraying what a group effort the bomb project was. And, it's a reminder that we are all in this together.

Part 2 covers the last night before the test, and is all about the building of tension that leads to the conclusion. Native American naturalism contends with militarism and technology. The feminine (personified by Oppie's wife, Kitty) counters the masculine. Thunderstorms threaten to detonate the bomb prematurely. General Groves, under time pressure from Washington, takes it out on his meteorologist, demanding favorable weather for the test. The scientists are taking bets on how powerful the explosion will be, and whether or not it will ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world. Not too much pressure!

The final turn of the screw is the way the passage of time slows near the end, expanding the final minutes to several times their size, until both audience and cast are waiting breathlessly for the sudden flash it seems will never come. It does, of course, as we know it must, and as the curtain descends the final voice is that of a Japanese woman calling for water for herself and her children, and our national guilt descends upon us as well.

Ultimately the opera works not because it tells the story, which has been told much more completely elsewhere, or because of its beauty, because beauty is not the first word that comes to mind to describe the rumbling and pounding score. Rather, it is a meditation on the event, a powerful invocation of all the forces at work and the effect they have had on us, irrevocably and forever. It was the day Pandora's box opened, and one we will never forget.

When the ancient Greeks went to the amphitheater to see Oedipus they didn't go to learn the story, because they already knew it well. They just went to bask in their mythology, to consider once again what it had to tell them about their own lives. Now Oppenheimer and Trinity are part of our mythology, and it behooves us to take what lessons we can from them. Doctor Atomic is one attempt to do just that.

[For more I recommend the biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, which I mentioned in last year's blog about Los Alamos. There are also two definitive histories by Richard Rhodes called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. I've recently ordered both of them and plan to read and report on them in the future, so stay tuned.]

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