Waiting for the Operatic Hammer to Fall

Last week Dear Wife Betty & I were out in San Francisco where we took in, as they say, Dr. Atomic at the San Francisco Opera. It’s about the Manhattan Project on the eve of the test detonation of the first bomb in 1945; in particular it’s about the moral ambiguity of the bombmaking enterprise, layered on top of deep uncertainty about whether the thing would actually explode (and perhaps ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth).

The composer is John Adams, and the musical style is modern quasi-minimalist. The director is Peter Sellars, and the staging is Sellarian, with giant stylized props representing the bomb-test tower, the remote dry mountains, the physics laboratories; even Mr. & Mrs. Oppenheimer’s marriage bed. During most of the opera, the characters Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson and Leslie Grove sing about bomb designs and yields, war strategy, sin, physics and whether lightning from a desert storm will accidentally set off the bomb before they can set if off on purpose. In the second act two women sing poetic nonsense over a crib; Kitty Oppenheimer the while holding a highball glass in one hand and a grasping the neck of a mostly empty bottle of rye with the other. Throughout both acts there is a large chorus dressed in Army fatigues frantically moving about hither and thither as Oppenheimer, dressed like David Bryne in an oversized zoot suit, broods metaphysically, spouting Baudelaire and John Donne.

Also there were dancers who appeared at random times and did balletic stuff like you used to see on shows like Solid Gold in the days before MTV. (Betty said that they looked like the Maoist dancers you used to see on the Ed Sullivan show, only without the long ribbons on sticks).

Despite many misgivings, I liked Dr. Atomic a lot.

After all, how often does one get to see a full dress, high, arch, 80-piece orchestra, operatic treatment of the heart-numbing dread that is the essence of technoparanoia?

More impressions (and some spoilers) below the fold.

Betty & I sat in the far back right corner, 1st floor. I think the seat numbers were z24 & z26. Not great seats, but some of last tickets available, and more to the point, almost affordable. Also, they were perfectly situated for quick getaways at the intermission and finale.

In an email discussion after the play, my friend Alison made some interesting comments about the themes chosen and omitted:

The plot seemed to start in the middle, with the
major characters being given no introduction. The second act is
filled with that Muriel Rukeyser poetry and native song, both of which
appear to be introduced to give women roles to sing rather than for
thematic reasons. Most of the well-known drama of the Manhattan
project (death of Feynman’s wife, presence of spy Klaus Fuchs, hard
feelings between Teller and co-workers, deliberations by Truman, tie
vote over in Japanese cabinet after bombing, Frank Oppenheimer’s
communism, Robert Oppenheimer’s affairs) is omitted. Instead of
character development or plot we get a bunch of dancers.

I’m more forgiving than Alison is on that subject. Two nights ago Betty & I had dinner with a friend Mateo who had also seen Dr. Atomic, and he also complained about lack of plot and character development, to which Betty said, “Hey, it’s opera. It’s not Death of a Salesman,” or words to that effect. In opera, plot is often pretty minimal.

My biggest complaint with the production was the Solid Gold Dancers. Not only did they add nothing, they positively detracted. Every time they came on and spun around I couldn’t hep thinking, “What the fuck are THEY doing up there?” I thought their presence was idiotic. Not that dancers are necessarily out of place on a giant opera stage. But their ballet moves were just incongruous. Maybe if they had been doing the jitterbug?

I thought the music was OK; good, even. Sometimes very dramatic and moving, but often kinda modernist-muzak. Bland. Not bad, but not great either. Of course, I was not able to give it my full attention, what with watching the show, reading the libretto, trying to parse the often incoherent lyrics, and so forth. I expect I’ll like it better when I give it the attention it warrants. When does the CD come out?

I thought the staging was very, very cool. I liked the costumes and sets, and the way the sets moved. All the army guys moving around very energetically. It created a sense of just what a massive, strange, and significant undertaking the Manhattan Project really was. It created a sense of desparate times, like Minas Tirith with the orcs massing below the gates. I liked the evocaton of the desert, and the bomb, and the big bomb tower. All that was very cool.

I couldn’t tell if the singing was good or merely competent, because there was not a single aria that gave a singer a chance to shine. There was no equivalent of Madam Butterfly before her suicide, or what’s his face in Rigoletto after the death of his daughter. It was all kind of uniform, which means to me that either that was a deliberate choice, or that Adams didn’t have the talent to write a moving aria in his chosen style. Well, let me take that back a little. Oppenheimer’s John Donne sonnet was an aria, and I liked it a lot. The women’s arias were incomprehensible, both lryically and musically.

I did not realized until after watching the show that Kitty was channeling the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. I just thought she was nuts, or perhaps a far-gone alcoholic. Neither did I know what the nanny-lady was singing about. I knew they were all feminine and pro-peace, but I thought maybe the point was that women were basically mental incompetents.

NEVERTHELESS, and even though it was cheesey and obvious, I thought the crib onstage, and the lowering of the bomb over the crib, were very dramatic and very moving. Likewise I found Oppenheimer’s sonnet at the end of the first act, and his going behind the curtain to commune with the bomb, to be quite chilling and dramatic. I confess to being moved by that. I even had a wee tear fall from me oy.

My friend Mateo thought that the play let Oppenheimer off the moral hook too easily; that Oppy play-acted his moral anguish but was in actual fact seduced by the coolness of “the gadget.” I myself am willing to take Oppenheimer’s mental turmoil at face value. Mateo also commented that the final words of the opera, spoken in Japanese, are not translated. “Doesn’t that bother you?” he asked. Well, I’m still thinking about his question, but I have since learned that the words are, “May I have a drink of water, please?” as spoken by a survivor of the bomb blast.

Missing Freddie Mercury

As much as I liked the show — and I am an opera fan, although I don’t get to see it very often — it occurred to me as the plot moved to its climax, that what was missing was the true music of the apocalyptic age: rock. Dr. Atomic just couldn’t get loud enough for me. When world class physicists are singing about taking bets on whether they will ignite the air and immolate the planet, oboe accompaniment just don’t cut it. For that you want Pink Floyd’s “Delicate Sound of Thunder.” You want Hendrix at Woodstock. You want Sympathy for the Devil and Gimme Shelter. And mostly, you want the late, great Freddie Mercury of Queen all camped-out in Tom of Finland leather britches singing

For we who grew up tall and proud
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud
Convinced our voices can’t be heard
We just wanna scream it louder and louder and louder

Or, maybe you don’t want that. I don’t know.

A few days later I was in the San Francisco Airport, looking for a magazine to read on the flight home. I picked up a big fat Atlantic Monthly with a long article by a writer I like:

The Wrath of Khan
How A.Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can’t be stopped. By William Langewiesche

I put it down and chose something else. I don’t even remember what it was, I just know that it had nothing to do with atomic doctors.

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