Despite the negative economic climate, on the night of the premiere (October 13), the Met was as packed and festive as ever. I noticed two young men neatly wearing identical suits, white Wayfarer glasses, and purple bow ties (younger incarnations of Gilbert and George), attractive women in lavish decolletes, everyone young and old rather dressed up for the event, a good feeling. Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Agnes Varis you can literally steal the best seats in the house as “rush tickets” for $20 and $30 though this Thursday (October 17)…so there is no excuse not to see the New York production of John Adams’ fifth opera, Doctor Atomic.
This piece has been presented in San Francisco and in Europe with staging by its librettist Peter Sellars, but the New York version is staged by one of John Adams’ long-time collaborators Penny Woolcock (she adapted The Death of Klinghoffer for television) with the wonderful “ars povera meets Joseph Cornell meets Kienholz” sets by Julian Crouch (who did the sets for Satyagraha as well): rows and rows of large white boxes were piled on top of one another, each containing a live character immobilized in a choreographed position as “living art” (the choreography is by Andrew Dawson).
This presentation by the Metropolitan Opera is the second new premiere this year, again thanks to Agnes Varis who underwrote Philip Glass’ Satyagraha as well. Interestingly, both productions carry a message of non-violence and humanity.
The music of Doctor Atomic is remarkable in many ways. I loved the integration of electronics and audio collages in appropriate spots. The orchestral sound with its upbeat multicolored textures reminded me sometimes of a deconstructed brassy ’swing time’ band, other times of Debussy’s best atmospheres, and surprisingly not of the minimalism of Harmonielehre (I have been listening to John Adams’ music for some time, I think this piece was composed during the 80s). The style is intrinsic to the piece itself. Its orchestral complexity was impeccably conducted by Alan Gilbert, the bright newcomer to the Philharmonic as music director starting next season.
Thankfully, John Adams did not attempt to emulate the atomic blast with his music: “I struggled for months over how to treat the explosion…Trying to pull out the orchestral stops to approximate an atomic explosion would only produce a laughable effect…” Instead of a blast, the piece ends quietly with the recorded voice of a Japanese woman repeatedly asking for water for her children and herself.
The vocals are woven into the musical texture rather than floating on top of it, except for the more lyrical moments setting poetry by John Donne and translated from the Bhagavad Gita. Most notable were the exquisite vocal parts set for the role of the Indian girl Pasqualita, rendered by the velvety, heavenly voice of mezzo soprano Meredith Arwady (who makes her Met debut this season.)
The characters in Doctor Atomic are taken straight from history: J. Robert Oppenheimer, a modern-day Dr. Faust, who takes credit for using his genius to create the greatest instrument of destruction known to man, sung by Gerald Finley; his wife Kitty Oppenheimer, aptly sung by soprano Sasha Cooke; General Leslie Groves performed by smooth bass-baritone Eric Owens, also making his debut at the Met. The other excellent performers are Richard Paul Fink in the role of Edward Teller, Thomas Glenn in the role of Robert Wilson, Earle Patriarco in the role of Frank Hubbard and Roger Honeywell as Captain James Nolan. With the exception of the two women, the characters are either military or scientific and the vocals are not hypermelodic but adaptive.
This is an opera about ideas, where ideas trigger emotions as much as situations; I think it is a modern, 21st-century concept. It is important to note that the Met is supporting this kind of evolutionary operatic form, including recorded electronics, projections and abstract storylines. Doctor Atomic deals with some of the most painful and difficult issues faced not only by the American people but by humanity as a whole. It is solid work of three hours, consistent with the current trend of polystylistic music and possibly Adams’ greatest masterpiece (he already received a Pulitzer for his “Transmigration of Souls” after 9/11). But even as serious as it is, the opera has a certain degree of humor from time to time, which makes it all the more endearing and current.
In the first act, the message carries the ambiguity between the righteous motivation of the American scientists fighting the Nazi regime and the absolute horror of knowing what the nuclear bomb actually does. In the second act the message is no longer ambiguous. As John Adams describes it in an interview printed on the program, “The atomic bomb is the most emphatic symbol expressing the American predicament in the world at this moment. It expresses the triumph of technological and scientific prowess. At the same time, the lamentable fact that we are the only nation in the world that has used the atomic bomb is a moral burden that we have to carry.” This moral reckoning is clearly expressed in the very appropriate shyness of the ending.
It is a must see.
Today at 4PM you can meet the singers at a lecture entitled “The Nuclear Family: The Singers of Doctor Atomic” taking place tonight at 6PM at the Rose Building, Lincoln Center.
CUNY is hosting a series of symposia on the subject of the atomic bomb: on Friday, October 17 at 3PM, the focus is on “The Manhattan Project” then later that day at 6:30 P,on “Wartime Decisions and the Atomic Age” and on October 20 at 6:30PM, on “Women of the Manhattan Project.”
PS: I once knew a punk band called The Manhattan Project. That was in 1978 or thereabouts…