Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Your shape stupendous

August 11, 2008


My recent trip to Santa Fe gave me an opportunity to see and do a couple of things indirectly related to opera that I thought might be worth mentioning. I got the pleasure of meeting The Standing Room’s Sidney Chen in, you guessed it, the standing room at Friday’s spectacular Adriana Mater performance. Two bloggers meet and momentarily the time/reality continuum seems to bend. But prior to this was another interesting side trip up to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The museum is run by the University of California on behalf of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and it represents an overview of the history of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s (from which the first nuclear bombs were developed) as well as the general work and research areas that the LANL continue to this day. I’ve been to Los Alamos before, often to visit Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful and mysterious treasure in the mountains, but this is the first time I’ve actually visited anything relating to the city’s less ancient history. I was motivated in part due to the upcoming performances of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera this fall in a new staging directed by Penny Woolcock in a co-production with English National Opera. (Tickets are on sale at Noon on Sunday if you don't already have yours.) I’ve seen the opera twice before in San Francisco in 2005 and last year in Chicago and can’t wait to see it again for what is unquestionably the biggest thing happening in New York opera-wise this coming season. As I’ve noted before, it’s a masterpiece, and a visit to the history room at the Los Alamos museum seemed appropriate to see some of the material that inspired the opera and made it into the libretto first hand.

The thing that struck me most at the museum was an important fact about the opera itself that is often overlooked in much of the popular criticism about the piece. The museum’s history exhibit focuses heavily on photos and reminiscences of dozens of ordinary Americans - men and women, scientists and not - who lived secretly in Los Alamos during the days of the Manhattan Project working for their country on a horrible weapon that would end the war, they hoped, but also change the world in ways even they did not completely understand. In secret, these predominantly young adults hid away often from their own families for the sake of secrecy and worked around the clock at times to prepare the bomb that would be tested in the summer of 1945 at the Trinity site in the southern New Mexico desert as well as those that would later be dropped on Japan. These photos and articles were a keen reminder of what Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars have repeatedly recognized about the work – it is an opera about much more than J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s an opera about America as a whole and about a group of ordinary citizens, doing what they normally do and making sacrifices to reach an end they hope will be for the best but may be infinitely more complicated.

The exhibit also includes a brief film about Los Alamos that notes the area prior to the Manhattan Project was nothing more than a ranch for the sickly male children of wealth families until the government took possession of it in the early 1940s. The film later features Oppenheimer himself quoting the Bhagavad Gita when referring to the Trinity test in much the same way that Act II of Doctor Atomic ends. It brought tears to my eyes and I could see much of the emotional potential of the topic and, I imagine, some of its draw to Adams and Sellars. It’s a quintessentially American topic for an opera and it has been fashioned into a great one. Of course, I suspect that many people will continue to miss the boat on this one. Doctor Atomic does not have a traditional libretto. Sellars and Adams culled it together from other written source material attributed to characters in the opera or the work of a variety of different poets. The opera has been amplified in all the performances to date at the insistence of the composer. These and other factors are hard things to get over for some of the insanely rigid and shortsighted folks who call themselves opera fans. But nonetheless, Doctor Atomic is another operatic landmark and I would imagine the folks in Santa Fe would be chomping at the bit to stage it. To stage the opera in the open countryside of the very mountainous land it refers to for an audience of some of the ancestors of the very people depicted in the opera seems like too great an artistic temptation to pass up. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.



These and other factors are hard things to get over for some of the insanely rigid and shortsighted folks who call themselves opera fans

And what about those of us who simply think it isn't a good opera? I couldn't care less what an opera is about, that doesn't give to the libretto and music a pass.

Apparently it's been revised, so I'm not up on it currently, but I thought it was a huge disappointment at the world premiere, as did the 1/2 dozen or so friends that were there.

First off, the libretto. It's not that it's because it "does not have a traditional libretto" that my friends and I thought it was utterly dire; I love operas like The Mask of Orpheus that have almost anti-librettos. It's because there's lines it in that had the audience guffawing, there's lines so un-singable that not even Schubert could make them grateful vocal lines (if Schubert wrote in English, that is!), there's borderline offensive scenes with the Indian (really now, in 2006 or whenever the premiere was, to use the "Indians as guides to the spirit world" trope?) and most of all, the utterly ghastly "Leslie Groves is fat" scene.

Then there's the music. I've heard everything Adams has released and I think he can't set text to save his life. I wish someone would lock him in a room for a month with the scores to all of Britten's operas and vocal pieces and tell him to learn how it's done.

The music itself was interesting, but Adams has hit a wall, I'd say: his early, chugging minimalist style is played out but he replaced that with more dissonance so....he's now using cliches from the Second Viennese School and the post-war modernists that were played out 30 years ago. Oh, the irony.

Worst of all, he totally punts the moment the bomb explodes. I don't buy that "you can't express that in music" nonsense that was bandied about before the premiere. He has a huge orchestra with electronic keyboards in the pit and...we get silence? Not as lame as the inept Jake Heggie using silence when the guy died in the awful Dead Opera Walking but still.

Maybe, just maybe, Doctor Atomic isn't that good and it's not a failing on any particular listener's fault to say so.
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