John Adams – Doctor Atomic / Metropolitan Opera 2008 (2)

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One of the things I noticed about this opera was the way the drama is handled. There is a narrative quality to this story – we begin at a point before the test bomb is detonated, and we end with the test bomb being detonated, with a long, stretched-out moment right before as all the characters wait – but there is also a non-narrative quality to the story. A lot of the scenes are not dialogue that happens in the way that dialogue happens in, say, a Da Ponte libretto: with, roughly speaking, the same time/space constraints as a real life conversation. Instead, it’s something a little different.

In the first scene, for example, the scientists express concern over the moral implications of what they are doing and disagree over the extent of their responsibility for whatever the Truman administration might decide to do with their invention. One gets the sense from this of a much messier set of human interactions and moments of reflection that happened at many different places and times, compressed very smoothly into the space of the stage and the time that the scene takes. This impression is assisted by the staging, which has the character of Robert Wilson, who argues for the need to take political responsibility for the possible consequences of their discovery, up above the others in another part of the stage. (There are two movable walls which contain rows of cubby-holes in which some of the characters and the chorus are often to be found; we first see Wilson up in the top row of these, working.)

Truth through “fundamental unreality” strikes again in the libretto itself, which moves from ordinary conversation to poetry (Donne, Baudelaire, etc.) and back again. The things the characters say in one another’s vicinity, even when they are said at the same time, are not necessarily what you would call conversation. There are also relatively few moments of overlap – there are some choral sections and a few brief interludes where vocal lines cross, but on the whole I got the distinct impression that neither Sellars nor Adams wanted us to miss any of the words.

The way Adams sets the text confirms this again. Or rather, it confirms this and then it adds something more. Sometimes even when an opera is in English I have difficulty understanding the sung text – but here, even with the subtitles off, no trouble at all. I think Gluck (well, if we explained to Gluck what an atomic bomb is – do you think we could?) and certain French baroque opera composers would have approved of the way the text is matched with the music. The note to syllable ratio is low – no long flights of ornamentation here. This makes it all the more striking when the vocal parts leave the text behind, as they do in some places. These moments of abstract music unattached to text, or between bits of text, are associated with the women, Kitty Oppenheimer (wife of J. Robert) and Pasqualita, the Native American who works as Kitty’s maid. The idea seems to be a gendered contrast between the mostly male scientists’ concern with precision and getting the mechanics of the thing right and the more abstract concerns, often voiced by Kitty, of love, death, war, and etc. There are a few other (non-singing) Native American characters in addition to Pasqualita – they seem to work as stagehands/cleaning staff, and they reappear towards the end in what looks like it’s intended to be ceremonial clothing of some kind. My impression is that they are there again as a contrast to the measured, precise scientific time and suchlike of the Los Alamos scientists. This is a bit of a cliche – Indians as representing the timeless, or nature, or whatever – and I would like to be wrong that this is what is going on.

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

  1. A few thoughts…

    I don’t know if Gluck would have understood an atomic bomb but the poets who composed the Mahabharata surely would have.

    Adams’ concern with clarity of text is well documented. It’s why some of the singers in Nixon are, shock horror, miked.

    Oppenheimer straddles or perhaps rather transcends the gender divide. He’s one of the male scientists but he has those long interludes where he’s spouting Donne or the Bhagavad Ghita. I wonder whether the whole libretto isn’t designed around that concept. The prose is so banal (in contrast to the Goodman’s verse in earlier works) even ridiculously so in the General Geoves chocolate cake episode. Then it’s contrasted with the highest of high poetry in, for example, “Batter my heart”.


    1. That quality of the banal vs. the transcendent is probably a good way of organizing this – mundane details versus what the project ultimately accomplishes; the gritty reality of politics and war versus the larger underlying concerns – and Oppenheimer is smack in the middle of it all. (And this is probably related to the way the thing ends, with the voice-over of the Japanese woman repeating her request for water – a very ordinary thing to say, but the context of it is of course much bigger and pretty horrific.)


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