Not so new

I haven’t seen Dr. Atomic, the new John Adams/Peter Sellars opera. But I did notice something Sellars said about the piece, quoted from Tony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the premiere:

As Mr. Sellars explained in a preperformance talk, Oppenheimer understood that by pushing science to new limits he would unleash barely imaginable forces in the world and even more fearsome forces within mankind. But he willed himself to turn off the part of his brain that processes ethical qualms about his work. The “best people” in Washington will make these decisions for us scientists, he argues.In his talk, Mr. Sellars bemoaned today’s culture, in which the government and the news media simplify everything with “ridiculous crudeness.” Welcome to opera, he said, where we do not shy from ambiguity and complexity.

Adams also has been quoted (see Matthew Gurewitsch’s Times advance piece on the opera) talking very seriously about the social and moral issues he wants his work to raise:

”To me, the Los Alamos story and the bomb in particular is the ultimate American myth,” Mr. Adams said. ”It constellates so many of the defining themes of our American consciousness. Industry and invention leading to a ‘triumph’ of science over nature; the presumption of military dominance on behalf of what we perceive as the ‘right’ values; the newfound power to bring about annihilation of life; and the moral and ethical conundrums that the possession of such an instrument of destruction force upon us.”

Now, with all respect to Peter and to John– and not meaning in the least to shoot their work down — isn’t this all a little old? Haven’t all these issues, and Oppenheimer’s ambivalence about bringing the bomb into the world, been discussed over and over and over again, for decades? I see from the review that John found a way to avoid all obvious clichés at the end of the piece, by (instead of creating a huge noise for the atomic blast over Hiroshima) winding the music down, and finishing with the simple sound of someone speaking in Japanese. But isn’t this just a higher-order cliché? We all know what Oppenheimer created; we all know how the bomb was used. What kind of new thoughts do we get from being reminded of that now?

Far better, I’d think, to explore how all these issues play out in our world now. Or, as in the ’50s film Hiroshima mon amour, probe how the threat of mass destruction affects our individual behavior. Or, I’d think, even more powerfully than anything anyone could have done in the ’50s, how the acceptance of mass destruction changes us.

So again, with all respect to Peter and to John, if you want to know why new operas tend to be irrelevant, look no further than this supposedly relevant one. Opera simply isn’t an art form anybody looks to for discussion of important issues. Sure, the Adams/Sellars Kinghoffer caused a stir, but not because any large number of even cultured, intellectual people took it seriously as a look at burning current concerns, but only because it broke what some people thought was a taboo.

Dr. Atomic, in the end, seems very safe. Of course, I might change my mind if I saw it. But I did read through portions of the score, and that only confirmed my opinion. This opera treads a well-worn path. I’ve occasionally seen new operas that really seemed to mean something new — especially Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, and (with Robert Wilson) his Einstein on the Beach. And works by Meredith Monk, if we want to call them operas.

But has there otherwise been any new opera that’s as current, deep, and probing as The Sopranos? Or, in the realm of comedy, as Curb Your Enthusiasm? Or even the SciFi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, which is sometimes conventional TV, but sometimes also far beyond that, with wrenching sexual perversity only one of many things that emerge in the wake of a massively destructive terror attack. TV, it seems to me, is by any honest artistic measure miles ahead of just about any new work any opera house is offering. 

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