Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Doctor Atomic.

On Monday evening I attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of contemporary American composer John Adams' Doctor Atomic. Set in the days and hours leading up to the world's first nuclear test in July 1945, Doctor Atomic examines the thoughts and emotions of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and other participants in the Manhattan Project. Much of what I read about Doctor Atomic before Monday night's performance focused on the opera's putatively Faustian characterization of Oppenheimer. My own impression, though, is that Doctor Atomic has more to say about the collective psyche of a group of scientists and soldiers working to perfect a new weapon that they're not sure will work. Though they are seldom at the center of the action, two women - Oppenheimer's wife Kitty and a Native American housekeeper - articulate anxieties and concerns seldom expressed by the men behind the Manhattan Project. Whatever moral qualms Oppenheimer and his colleagues have about their work only intermittently bubble to the surface in a libretto that focuses more on the uncertainties preceding the first explosion of an atomic bomb - will it work? how powerful will it be? what about the fallout? - as well as the clash between egos and temperaments (and, in a somewhat subtler way, cultures and genders).

Watching and listening to Doctor Atomic, I couldn't help but think of Philip Glass' Satyagraha, which I took in last spring at the Met. Certainly, there are some parallels between Doctor Atomic and Satyagraha - both deal with 20th century events (in the case of Satyagraha, the early career of Mahatma Gandhi), both are the work of American composers who were formerly considered minimalists (Adams now calls himself a "postminimalist," while Glass currently identifies as some sort of Classicist), and both take their libretto from 'found' sources (the Bhagavad Gita in the case of Satyagraha, and an eclectic variety of texts - including, notably, bits of the Bhagavad Gita - in the case of Doctor Atomic). There is also some overlap in the membership of the creative teams that worked on the Met productions of both operas, which led to some similarities in the staging of the two works. Both Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic rely as much on visuals as they do on music to tell their respective stories, for which reason I think I would find it hard to listen to recordings of either.

Whether or not it's fair to compare Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic, I came away from the second with a greater appreciation for the first. As I remarked to a Jesuit who joined me for Monday night's performance, I liked the music of Doctor Atomic much more than the libretto. Many of the texts chosen by librettist Peter Sellars (taken from government reports, diary entries, letters and the like) don't make for memorable listening; it's quite telling that the most lyrical passages of the libretto were taken from poetry, including a very moving aria based on John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. The libretto of Satyagraha may have been incomprehensible and repetitive (sung in Sanskrit, the text fit on both sides of a two-sided sheet of paper), but its meditative quality made for fairly pleasant listening.

On a thematic level, I got the sense that Adams, Sellars and the rest of the team behind Doctor Atomic couldn't quite decide how to handle the moral ramifications of Oppenheimer's actions. In marked contrast with the reverential attitude that Satyagraha assumes toward its subject, Doctor Atomic does not take an explicit moral stance regarding the creators of the atomic bomb. As noted above, moral calculations only occasionally surface in the libretto. The only reference that Doctor Atomic makes to the human impact that its characters' actions would have comes in the tape-recorded pleading of a Japanese survivor of the one of the first nuclear attacks; played at the very end of the opera, this tape provides a moral coda that seems not to fit with everything that has preceded it. While Satyagraha stakes out a clear moral position regarding Gandhi (albeit a fairly noncontroversial one), Doctor Atomic is more cautious in its treatment of its protagonists. Utimately, it seems to be up to the audience of Doctor Atomic to make its own judgments regarding Oppenheimer and his cohorts. AMDG.


At 10/19/2008 7:36 PM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

Thanks, Joe. I enjoy theater (esp. shows exploring historical themes) so it's valuable to see an evaluation of the relative merits of a production prior to possibly seeing it. Talk to you again soon.


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