WHY DIDN'T "DOCTOR ATOMIC" BOMB?

"Doctor Atomic""'Doctor Atomic' marks John Adams's first truly stodgy, establishment opera", writes James C. Taylor. "If it were allowed to bomb, perhaps he'd go back to making operas that were quirky and challenging" ...

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"Close enough" may count in horseshoes, hand-grenades and (by extension) global thermonuclear war, but it doesn't count for anything in the world of opera premieres. Audiences and opera companies either wildly embrace a new work (as with Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" or Thomas Ades' "The Tempest") or completely dismiss it (most other English-language operas premiered since John Adams's breakthrough work "Nixon in China", 1987). A tepid or "close enough" reaction usually results in the same oblivion that awaits new operatic failures: polite, lukewarm applause at the opening, perhaps a listing on singers' CVs for a few seasons and, ultimately, no revivals or follow up productions.

One new opera is bucking this trend: Adams's latest music drama, "Doctor Atomic". Despite earning mixed reviews from its 2005 premiere at San Francisco Opera, and in both Chicago and Amsterdam since, a brand new production of "Doctor Atomic" has been rolled out at the Metropolitan Opera this autumn. (Broadcast live around the world today at 1pm EST/18:00GMT on radio and in cinemas.) Critics have been ambivalent and audiences half-hearted. Yet Adams's new work--an ambitious biographical snapshot of Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer--is not experiencing the typical fallout of a mediocre opera-going experience. This is a problem because, frankly, "Doctor Atomic" deserves to bomb.

The main problems rest at the feet of the composer. Yes, the libretto, by Peter Sellars, is unfortunate, but to blame it misses the point. Opera composers can demand words worthy of music. Adams's past collaborations with Alice Goodman, who wrote the librettos for his first two operas, are examples of a successful partnership. How and why the task of writing this libretto was entrusted with Sellars (who directed those previous Adams/Goodman collaborations) is confounding, particularly as a Goodman draft of this opera reportedly exists. Sellars is a justly celebrated director, but he had never before written an operatic libretto.

A Met premiere would have been a perfect excuse to tinker with, tighten or thoroughly revise the readymade libretto, but Adams apparently thinks it works just fine. Many had also hoped that Sellars's collage of text (fragments of existing non-fiction works, poems, etc) might be given shape with a new director. Sadly, the Met production by Penny Woolcock is just as dramatically inert and opaque as Sellars's own staging in San Francisco.  

Adams is equally culpable for the opera's second-biggest problem: its length. Whether he padded his score to match Sellars's overlong libretto or vice versa, the composer bears responsibility for letting his opera swell to become a bloated three-and-a-half hours. There is fine music in "Doctor Atomic"--including one aria (of a John Donne sonnet) that makes sitting through the ponderous first act worthwhile. But the score cannot sustain the un-dramatic doodling on stage. The second act can seem like two hours spent in a real fallout shelter. Just as Adams takes the final bow, he's the person who ultimately has to make cuts and fix things that don't work. 

Now, if Adams latest opera were simply guilty of a poor libretto and padded length, it would be no worse than John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby", Lorin Maazel's "1984" or so many of other middling operas waiting for their second chance. What really makes "Doctor Atomic" toxic is the fact that it has very little to say about Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project or the moral dilemma of nuclear weapons--and what it does say is often foolish.

The more benign foolishness is the relationship between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty. Quite simply, Kitty is a collection of bland platitudes about war and humanity. Because Adams wrote the role for the late, great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, there will always be people who say: "we'll never know how great a character Kitty would have been." Well, yes we do. It's a bad part and frankly not even Lieberson could have made this role come to life. (I say this as someone who saw her instantly ignite the sleepy "Gatsby" in her scenes as Myrtle Wilson.) The "love" duet between Kitty and Oppenheimer plays like a panel discussion. There is no subtext or sense of what brought them together, no sense of the complexity or problems of their marriage. And I won't even go into the second act rubbish between Kitty and her Tewa Indian maid, named Pasqualita--no points for guessing which character gives sage advice on womanhood and Mother Earth.

There is plenty of other nonsense, too, such as a whole bit about General Leslie Groves's weight problems or ghostly choral passages in which terms like "icosahedrons" or "the plutonium cone" are tossed about frivolously. But all this is as innocuous as it is silly.

Yet "Doctor Atomic" gets downright radioactive when it gets political. Rather than tackle the bigger issues of nuclear science or Oppenheimer's up-and-down career, Adams tries to keep the opera focused on the Manhattan Project, specifically, the men toiling in New Mexico. Sure, these stage versions of Oppenheimer, Groves, Edward Teller and Robert Wilson do address the greater issues of the war and its politics. When Adams keeps the opinions in the mouths of his characters, "Doctor Atomic" doesn't offend. Occasionally however, Adams uses his score to moralise--and because there is so little of interest onstage, these musical editorials have the subtlety of, well, an explosion.

The worst example of this is in the final scene of the opera, which ends not with a bang but with a literal whimper: a female Japanese voice weakly asking for a glass of water, a reference to the heat from the bombs that would incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Adams claims to have been inspired to depict Oppenheimer as a sort of American Faust figure. If so, then the struggle should be about a scientist wrestling with his ambition and his morals; the Japanese, whether represented by a poor, thirsty woman or a vicious soldier in Nanking, aren't really the point.

It's fair game to enlist Groves and the American military as representing ambition (ie, Mephistopheles), since they were paying his salary, but to paint the Japanese as the direct victims of Oppenheimer is merely glib. It also is bad drama, as if the finale of "Faust" concentrated not on the spiritual price of a professor selling his soul, but on the military ramifications of Mephisto killing the German soldier, Valentine. With these touches, Adams ignores the complex morality of the decision to drop the bomb. Instead he favours cheap devices in an effort to lend gravity to a lightweight music drama.

A few years back, when introducing a programme at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Adams described his opera as "court entertainment for the Reagan era." He was being facetious, but his quip came to mind while sitting through "Doctor Atomic". Unlike the hard-to-pin-down individuality of operas like "Nixon in China" or "The Death of Klinghoffer", Adams's latest opera feels homogenised and safe. Sure, it has some avant-garde trappings, but ultimately it allows upper-middle class audiences to feel smart, cultured, vaguely ashamed of America, and yet nostalgic for a time when the country could actually muster the talents of its citizens to build something that works. It's basically court entertainment for the anti-Bush era.  

"Doctor Atomic" marks John Adams's first truly stodgy, establishment opera. If it were allowed to bomb, perhaps he'd go back to making operas that were quirky and challenging; but with "Doctor Atomic" exploding all over the operatic map, Adams will now be rewarded with bigger budgets, greater access, and people wanting him to repeat its success. "Doctor Atomic" itself isn't powerful enough to be dangerous to Adams's talents or status as a composer. But, like the atom bomb itself, it's less the impact one worries about, and more what follows in its wake.

 

Photo credit: Nick Heavican

(James C. Taylor is the host of "Theatre Talk", a radio programme on KCRW. He writes about theatre and opera for the Los Angeles Times and Opera Magazine.)