Opera: John Adams / Doctor Atomic

The Metropolitan Opera
Composed by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars
Gerald Finley (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Sasha Cooke (Kitty Oppenheimer), Richard Paul Fink (Edward Teller), Eric Owens (Leslie Groves), Thomas Glenn (Robert Wilson), Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

Today I was checking out The Metropolitan Opera’s archival video of their 2008 production of John Adams‘ and Peter SellarsDoctor Atomic. This opera focuses on the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist OB-GYN who brought the demon spawn of nuclear weaponry into the world, and the timeline of his time as head of the Manhattan Project.

As odd as it might seem for a theme, the more you consider the huge story the more it seems actually overdue to be rendered as grand opera. Taken as a whole the work is flawed but very successful work of dramatic musical theater.

I admit arriving at this screening with skepticism at this work. Doctor Atomic has lived in my imagination as a exemplary of the towering pretentiousness and mandatory geekery of modern opera since reading through parts of the libretto. I only became curious about it after reading an article in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum, who, after attending the very performance I screened today, found it so wretched that he was inspired to mercilessly attack the work in a 3,000 word horsewhipping titled The Opera’s New Clothes: Why I Walked out of Doctor Atomic. A sample of his spicy commentary:

[The lyrics] were pedestrian, speechifying, and painfully simplistic (when not embarrassingly schlocky as in the “love scenes”). Yes, it’s true, opera librettos comprise their own genre. Opera lyrics are not poetry. But these ones suffer in particular from the contrast between the pretentious grandiosity of operatic treatment and the actual, disappointing content. And “singing” relentlessly dull prose does not raise it to the level of art. Instead it makes everything sound—forgive me—bombastic…

I began to wonder whether opera follows different rules: Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? Do opera buffs believe words don’t need to be well-chosen but are elevated to poetic heights merely by the sonorities, or snore-ities, that they are “sung” to? In Europe, they boo lustily at badly sung arias. What is one to do in America at offensively trivializing words?

Reading Rosenbaum’s piece in advance of watching the thing, I was intrigued by the possible contrasts in quality between the elements. The anticipated unevenness was there in abundance, best illustrated with my mental 3-band equalizer:

HIGHS: Staging, production values, high concept
MIDS: Music
LOWS: Libretto

Let’s break down this impressive, if flawed, opus.

As you would expect from anything put on by The Met, their production values for Doctor Atomic were masterfully rendered. Inventive integration of projection video on panels and background screens is a big winner. Ditto for the staging concept where at the opening curtain each member of the chorus is on scaffolding hidden behind panels identifying them with the real-life ID cards of physicists who developed the first atomic weapon. The costume design is excellent.

Looming over everything is a faithful reconstruction of the bomb – this prop might be the real star of the show – lowering from the ceiling in the climactic latter part of each of the two acts. The appearance of this prop character is stunning, stirring, and a mite scary.

But the most affecting and powerful staging is saved for the final act. In the final number, Zero Minus Two Minutes, the countdown to the first A-test is depicted with the cast and chorus donning their protective glasses as they face both the audience and the unknown. With the chorus on stage level, Native American spirits occupy their vacated cubicles on the scaffolding. The the ‘bomb’ detonates the stage lights blaze into daylight wattage, followed by a flash-forward with audio recordings from victims of Hiroshima.

The music is big, compelling, matching the size of the story. I felt it sustained the drama without becoming tedious. There isn’t much of a center to it – the score does suffer a bit from soundtrack-itis in an effort to keep the gravitas at a high level, and as a result whatever leitmotifs Adams had floating about are rather buried in the dramatic churn.

Adams is not much for lovely melodies either. I expect he could write one if he wasn’t so consumed with the geekery of creating complex themes for his socio-anthropological reflections, like the solo from a Native American housecleaner called the Cloud Flower Lullaby (I bet the honkies at the Santa Fe premiere in their $900 pima cotton khakis just ate that stuff up).

However, Adams has his moments, like in the opera’s only love duet Am I in Your Light? The first two dozen bars of this aria are as melodically fetching as anything on the modern operatic stage. But in developing it Adams doesn’t seem to trust in simplicity and after the initial burst of melodic goodness the thing meanders all over the place until you’re aching for a scene change. Still… it’s a pretty minute or so.

Another lost opportunity is a very brief moment in the first act when tenor Thomas Glenn sang, “The United States might be attacked! The United States might be attacked!” A bit of rhythmic verve emerged and I started to bob my head, oh yeah, work it daddy-o! But after a few bars Adams returns to the warmed-over Wagnerian bellowing. Fun while it lasted.

The libretto. Unfortunately. Those words.

Rosenbaum was on point in his Slate piece about the awkward words. For me, it’s as if librettist Sellars Googled “Manhattan Project” and simply took the contents of the Wikipedia entry, pasted it into a doc, inserted a load of line returns to make it look sort of like an epic tome and passed it off to Adams as modern verse. It is possible to give these lyrics a pass but you really have to jump over those lines, pretend you didn’t really hear them and focus on the grand design of the production lest you be eyeing your watch, dreaming of the Grand Tier bar and praying for the intermission to flee.

As illuminating as the creators of this work think it might be, I don’t attend a night at the opera to hear about the digestive problems of Leslie Groves, Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General and holder of the Legion of Merit.

So many pop music lovers are turned off by opera from the over-the-top dramatic singing, the constant dissonances, the hard to follow rhythms. But I believe all of that starts with the words. If words are stilted, over-literary, too clever by double, they are usually devilishly hard to write melodies for. And then you’ve got double trouble, with the music getting dragged down the drain with them.

I think all opera composers and their wordsmiths need to do some binge watching of great musicals to level-set what the hell you’re supposed to do with a score, a bunch of words and a top orchestra. Because if all you’re doing is plinking out random notes on a piano and dropping in the words slaving the phrasing to some 9/8 rhythm just cause that’s the way Penderecki woulda done it you’re well on your way to condemning your opera to the dung heap of failed musical theater.

Which is not something that will happen anytime soon to Doctor Atomic if it is staged as well as it was in The Met’s 2008 run. The music and concept are powerful enough to overcome the words that drove Mr. Rosenbaum out of the room all those years ago, and I think Doctor Atomic has much to recommend it in other levels besides poetry so we’ll say it’s one of those flukey winners that, if not ripe for repertory, might be with us for awhile.