Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Doctor Atomic

Sam & I watched the DVD performance of John Adams' latest opera (about 5 years old now) Doctor Atomic. It was produced by a Dutch opera company, with Gerald Finley reprising the role of Oppenheimer, which he premiered, and Peter Sellars directing. If you haven't seen this, I encourage you to visit your library and get the DVD (it's also available, pretty cheaply, from Amazon).

I'm admittedly not an opera fan. This isn't to mean that I dislike opera; it simply means that it's been off my radar for most of my life (aside from orchestral overture/preludes and the famous arias and choruses that are an indelible part of society, like the Toreador's Song). I have long been a fan of John Adams, though, and I was growing more anxious to watch the opera. Watching it with an opera major (who puts up with a lot of my operatic ignorance) was good - it forced me to watch the entire opera.

The DVD itself is produced well. It's two discs, with each act on a single disc. There are several mini-documentaries and an interview with Peter Sellars. The synopsis of the opera is clear, the narrator speaking over stills from the production.

The opera itself basically focuses on the night leading up to the first successful test of the atomic bomb at the Trinity site near Los Alamos, New Mexico. J. Robert Oppenheimer is the main figure, with support from his wife Kitty, Edward Teller, several other officials at Los Alamos, and Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers' Native American maid and care-taker for their children. The libretto was written by Peter Sellars, taking the words from original classified military sources, the Bhagavad Gita, and poetry ranging from Donne and Baudelaire to Native American sources.

The opera gives some interesting insight into the characters and their thoughts on the atomic bomb. Teller cracks jokes ("black humor") and takes bets regarding the test's success and how much force it will emit. Robert Wilson is a young physicist who wants to talk about the social and political implications of the bomb, but is continually shot down. Pasqualita, as stated by Peter Sellars, represents the feminine in the opera, looking toward nature, while the scientists represent the masculine, looking toward science and control.

The music itself sounds like John Adams, and in my opinion is one of the best pieces he's written. I've heard it said that Adams sets the English language better than no other composer, save from Benjamin Britten (Sam agrees). His score is accessible, written in the modernist yet tonal style typical of Adams. Adams admits to 50s sci-fi film music as an influence, and you can hear that immediately from the overture. There are also some breathtaking moments, such as the Batter, my heart aria (see the full version below) and Kitty Oppenheimer's part, especially her "feature" in Act I and the lines at the end "We are hopes, you should have hoped us/ We are dreams, you should have dreamed us."

It is somewhat Wagnerian, to quote Sam, in that each act is through-composed. The music never ceases, not allowing for any applause points. (Adams has stated previously that Wagner was a big influence on him as a composer.)

Peter Sellars' staging works pretty well. The cast in this production wore body mics, undoubtedly to help project over the massive orchestra and to help with the video production. This allowed the singers to turn away from the audience without fearing about projecting over the orchestra. The camera work took away from some of the staging and was a little distracting at times, but it mostly helped add to the effect.

The opera doesn't end with a large nuclear explosion. There is not flash of light, you don't see (or feel) the wind of the blast rushing past you. Yet, the last 20 or 30 minutes were completely suspenseful. I didn't want to move from my seat when it ended. The chorus is prostrate, eyes up in surprise. The bomb itself still hangs over the stage. And we are suddenly transformed to August 6, 1945 and hear a Japanese woman ask for a glass of water, and telling her son not to leave her side.

It's difficult for me to write much more about this, having only seen it once and not knowing a lot about opera with which to compare it. Suffice it to say that you need to experience this work. There isn't a cast recording of the complete opera (yet, at least), but you should be able to find the DVD. (Even though it's in English, I do suggest watching it with the subtitles.) There is also an instrumental work on Nonesuch, the Dr Atomic Symphony, that will give you a good idea of the score of the entire opera.

I will end with a quote from Alex Ross that sums up my opinion - "Suffice to say that Doctor Atomic is the most complexly enthralling thing that's come along since I've been a critic" - and Kitty's lines from the end of Act I, Scene 2.

"Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.
Our conflicts carry creation and its guilt,
these years’ great arms are full of death and flowers.
A world is to be fought for, sung, and built:
Love must imagine the world…"

The entire Batter, my heart aria - finale, Act I.


Dr Atomic - John Adams' site

San Fransisco Opera

Met Opera



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