John Adams – Doctor Atomic / Metropolitan Opera 2008 (1)

I am not sure what I think about this. It’s an opera – music by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars, who adapted much of it from other sources – about the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1945. I cheated a little bit and read the booklet as well as watching the opera itself, and in the ‘background’ section there Adams says something about being drawn to the “fundamental unreality” of opera because it’s this very quality that lets you use the art form to explore big questions. I think this is right on, although whether you think that this particular opera is successfully ‘big’ in that way is a separate issue.

(Also, the host for the Met’s broadcast was Susan Graham. I wonder if they asked her to do this one because in addition to being awesome in a general kind of way, she is from Roswell, New Mexico?)

Seeing an opera based on an event within recent historical memory is strange. One effect of this is that the opera is stuck with being about what it purports to be about, rather than something else. Watching that Guth production of Figaro again last week reminded me of one of the reasons that I like it so much, which was that it pulls to the surface all the little ambiguities of motivation and character – the effect is to present the opera as a drama about the mixed motives of human beings. The precision with which the characters’ feelings are handled makes the thing ring true in a larger, more abstract way that is not limited to the 18th-century text of the libretto. In general, I would say that the operas I like best – Don Giovanni, La Clemenza di Tito, Rodelinda, to name a few – tend to have this quality, that they can be about a specific time or place if you want, but they don’t have to be. (Then again, there’s Don Carlos, which is definitely about a specific time and place – except that it isn’t, really because, hey, Schiller ≠ the 16th century. But anyway.)

But this opera is about a specific set of events that happened in 1945. Not only this, but these are events that still evoke strong feelings. People come to this story with some opinons pre-formed. Or at least I assume that they do. As a result, this places some limitations on what can be in the opera. It’s about the relationship between humans and knowledge, and especially toward the end it’s about the nature of time, and it’s also about politics and responsibility. Humans are playing god – they have invented something that could destroy everything they want to preserve – and this is a very difficult thing to deal with. And it’s not mythical or metaphorical, like Wagner’s ring. It’s real. People have invented a thing that really could destroy the whole world, no fooling. In a sense, it’s almost necessary to make it unreal  – to turn it into an opera – in order to say anything at all about it. (This is probably the reason, or at least a reason, for the science fiction-y sounding title. Sometimes you have to turn real events into another type of story in order to find a way into them.)

(Next section here.)

2 thoughts on “John Adams – Doctor Atomic / Metropolitan Opera 2008 (1)

  1. I took a while to warm up to Doctor Atomic and I’m still not sure it’s as good as Nixon in China. The latter starts off with an attention grabbing chorus whereas Doctor Atomic seems to take a long time to get going, though I think the second half is quite powerful. Certainly one misses Alice Goodman. I understand what Sellars is doing with the libretto but I’m not sure it really works.
    I think both pieces show that one can make opera out of recent events as long as one emphasizes the mythic. Doctor Atomic clearly leans on both Prometheus and, more obviously, on the Mahabharata. Nixon mythologizes TV.
    FWIW I think the Amsterdam production is more effective than the Met’s which I found rather static.


    1. I’ll have to see the Amsterdam production – this one, while I didn’t dislike it, left me a little bit cold. I thought perhaps it was the opera itself; good to know there’s another version out there for comparison.


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