Dr. Atomic, San Francisco Opera, October 1-22, 2005 (World Premiere)
Review by Kenneth Quandt
John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, with libretto and mise en scène by Peter Sellars, has just completed its premiere run in San Francisco. Despite a month of preparatory fanfare, public seminars on the science, several mailings to opera subscribers, programs on the educational TV station, and preconcert lectures by Adams or by Sellars at each and every performance, the critics said it dragged.
A tighter plot might have helped. The opera depicts the last twenty-four hours before the A-Bomb test at Alamogordo as a slice of history. This choice forgoes the energy of a tight and forward moving plot with its intention, conflict, and resolution. The intention we find in Doctor Atomic is to create and test an A Bomb; the conflict is that it might rain but the date cannot be postponed since Truman is poised in Potsdam to persuade Stalin to sign a demand for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. The resolution is that the test succeeds despite the rain. Getting this amount of action to occupy three hours might involve some significant dragging.
The decision to be historical might give us a loose series rather than a tight sequence of events, but it has the potential upside of letting the facts speak for themselves. We get the problem of the weather and General Groves’s brash attempts to bully the meteorologist; Edward Teller’s rabid interest in oddball problems and Oppenheimer’s attempts to keep him under control; Kitty Oppenheimer wanting intimacy with her husband and his needing to rave about her perfume and her head of hair before he can bring himself to comply with her wishes. Is it the sober Groves who wrote Now It Can Be Told that we see, or is it a blustering military man playing opposite the philosophical scientist who can even humor him when he complains about his diet? Is it Teller, the great scientist and Hungarian refugee who went on to invent the much more powerful H-Bomb, or is it the Teller that the antiwar crowd has since vilified as a Dr. Strangelove? Is it Oppenheimer or is it a nerdy scientist who reads poetry in bed and needs to cook up a whole metaphysics of perfume in order to get himself aroused? In place of the real personages that could have been placed on the stage in their arresting historical individuality we are given types rather pukey, depicted in hackneyed cliché.
An historical treatment might have brought us closer to the events. Doctor Atomic brings us closer to our prejudices. Most of these are harmless, but some of them are so ignorant or so ungenerous as to be positively repulsive. Act II begins with a long aria by Kitty Oppenheimer, brightly and resolutely sung by Kristine Jepson, a setting of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Easter Sunday 1945,” over ten minutes long. The title, not its content, suggests a temporal connection at least, though there is no historical one. Kitty is alone at her baby’s crib; above the crib looms the bomb. Yes, the bomb, in a wonderful eerie lighting that makes it present but not present, like a new moon. The Rukeyser poem ties in with a moon of its own, the moon of the night before Easter, looming while the poet awaits sunrise and a brighter time without war when everything shines. Rukeyser is a little beside herself in her voice, but so is Mrs. Oppenheimer, who of course had a drinking problem as the program’s synopsis and the preconcert publicity has gently but persistently been reminding all of San Francisco for a month. Even so, Kitty is a different kind of raving lunatic. Rukeyser hopes for Easter Sunrise and Kitty dreads the flash of the bomb.
Balancing her long aria at the beginning of Act II is an aria by her husband that ends of Act I. It is a setting of Donne’s “Batter my heart three-personed God,” that trenchant poem in which Donne prays that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit might break and dissolve all his strength since he has by now so thoroughly consigned himself to the powers and principalities of this world that only by his total destruction could he be adequately shredded to be worth redeeming. Only God can destroy him as he needs to be destroyed, and only God can then redeem him. The music is a sustained outcry of remorse worded from phrases broken out of Donne’s poem in the manner of an aria da capo. It is the emotional climax of the evening, sung and enacted with great ardency and control by Gerald Finley. As he sings the poem in broken refrains, he steps fitfully but mechanistically toward the tented bomb tower and then back from it, as if toward his own gallows and then away. The aria, and the Act, ends with a blackout on the final note, Oppenheimer having stepped within the tent and standing momentarily visible, backlit in a frozen silhouette. The selection of the poem’s phrases, however, postpones Donne’s own goal, the redemption that alone can justify the battering for which he prays. When it is finally reached, its effect is not climax but closure. Oppenheimer comes off battering himself.
The poem is here because Oppenheimer often led people to believe that he named the test site “Trinity” after the “three-personed God” of this poem. But this proposition never made sense. The only sense it could make is that Oppenheimer, a Faust transmogrified, felt he had sold out and now on the eve of the test begs forgiveness and salvation from the triune God. This however would be the Christian God, not some ethnographical curiosity like the “trinity” of Hindu mythology (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) depicted with blissful impertinence in the program. Oppenheimer did read Sanskrit with Arthur Ryder at Berkeley, and did so in the only way that Ryder would read Sanskrit, with serious devotees in serious devotion and by candlelight. He knew therefore that the Hindu triad was nothing close to the “three-personed God” invoked by Donne. That the Donne poem could be the vehicle for expressing a Faustian remorse or a humanizing uncertainty at the last minute is a misinterpretation likewise alien to a mind with even the merest shadow of Oppenheimer’s intelligence.
In a late letter to General Groves (20 October 1962), published in a widely available short collection of his reminiscences and correspondence, he cleared things up as much as they could be cleared up:
“I did suggest it (sc. the name Trinity) … Why I chose the name is not clear but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘…As West and East / In all flatt Maps — and I am one — are one,/ So death doth touch the resurrection.’ ”
The quotation is from Donne’s “Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse,” where Donne wonders with an elaborate cartographic conceit whether the high fever he is suffering, which he represents by the hot southern point of the compass, might be triangulating him on a course through straits in the southwest, the westward tendency in his bearing symbolizing the sunset of death. The plain implication is that Oppenheimer feared the test would kill him in the flat southwestern desert at Alamogordo, and mused over a kind of immanent immortality in which the end is the beginning.
The magnificent aria does not survive reflection but fails in truth and fails in meaning. It is one of many virtues in the production that soon go sour. Sellars has added occasional interventions on stage of dancers for eight or thirty two bars, which are attractive. Soon we realize they are there to depict the emotions that these
scientists are unable or unwilling to articulate in words, and on reflection we wonder why we are being asked to spend the evening with such people in the first place. The music of Adams is as usual bright and objective, like the scientists on the stage that prate on about the conservation of matter and energy, so that what is objective in the music soon tends to devolve into the at-arm’s-length. When commitment comes, as in the “Batter” aria, it fails to make sense; when love comes on stage in the bedroom scene the music forgets itself and suddenly becomes lurid.
For the purposes of this opera, sounding scientific will do. Self-battering guilt moreover is a theme more fashionable these days, and therefore tips Sellars’s choice about the history. Kitty’s raving and self-defeating pacifism likewise rings the right bells. A dysfunctional love relationship between these two intellectuals that just scrapes by is perhaps more comfortable than the real thing, even though love is the greatest teacher in opera, and its Muse.
To right the story about Christian sentiments in this context is probably a fool’s errand. The piece is political art and in political art everything goes by the boards, starting with taste. Second goes profundity. Doctor Atomic purports to depict the moral qualms that might trouble the men and women involved in the production and deployment of a weapon of mass destruction; but rather than articulate these problems in their essentials, it bewails them by bluffing its way with high-sounding literature that means something else. Third and last to go is heart. How can the complex and wonderful Oppenheimer we had known something about be the person we see on stage, a secretly self-flagellating managerial eunuch afraid of his wife?
The thing drags because it depends so heavily upon the audience to connect the dots and give it what little sense it makes, an effort it barely repays. Finally the bomb explodes. These days when we go to the opera we see something that has made sense, on average, for at least a hundred years. This one is more like a movie, the sort of thing that won’t make sense in twenty.