Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Makes Me Wonder

June 04, 2008

from Wonders are Many
Photo : US Dept of Defense/John Else

Q: So when is an opera documentary not an opera documentary?

A: When that documentary is Wonders Are Many, John Else’s latest film that opened last weekend in LA and NY.

Ostensibly the film follows composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars in the months leading up to the world premiere of their most recent opera collaboration Doctor Atomic about J Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945. It would seem a perfect project for Else considering he has an interest in and previously directed documentaries on both Oppenheimer and opera. But while the film does make a successful case about why this is an appropriate topic for an opera to begin with, its own conflicted goals eventually sink the project overall.

Simply put, Wonders Are Many is not two great tastes that go great together. The film seems torn between being about Oppenheimer himself and about the development of an opera. In fact the material about Doctor Atomic often seems to be getting in the way of a broader project about Oppenheimer’s character. While there is plenty of material about the opera, it has little dramatic content in its own right and often seems to be a set up for the film's other goals. There is no discussion on a wide variety of topics that would seem to be primary to such a project such as how did Adams get interested in the project? What was San Francisco Opera’s general director Pamela Rosenberg's role? What were some of the largest hurdles in bringing this work to the stage to begin with? Just some thoughts.

Instead, we get multiple lengthy scenes of the props shop building a giant Styrofoam bomb replica and lots of archival footage. Not that this is painful or unpleasant. In fact, there are many interesting things to be seen here. Seeing Sellars in action with the chorus and principals is priceless. His overflowing enthusiasm for the work is palpable as he assembles the libretto from known texts and poetry. Gerald Finley, who plays Oppenheimer in the opera, comes off as both a wonderful singer and a thoughtful artist. In some ways it's a real missed opportunity. Doctor Atomic is a great opera. It continues to ruffle feathers in some circles for those who like their opera to fit comfortably in a box they store all of their opera thoughts and memories in. But its lack of traditional narrative structure is one of the things that makes it so great to start with. A documentary about this important work could have made that case in an interesting and thought-provoking way. Wonders Are Many, though, is not that film.


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