No, not this blog post. But rather Ron Rosenbaum’s blast at Dr. Atomic, on the Slate site and linked today from ArtsJournal. The picture it paints is pretty devastating. Smart, educated, cultured writer isn’t an opera fan, but respects opera. He goes to the Dr. Atomic premiere at the Met, expecting serious art, and instead thinks he’s seen something empty and pretentious. Of course, you might say that this is just his own take, and you also might damn him for leaving at intermission, which means that he’s disqualified (by the normal standards that apply to critics) from writing a review.
But this isn’t a review. It’s a personal essay, and the motivation for walking out was how much Ronsenbaum hated what he’d seen. I think he’s on to something, the question being whether classical music has anything to say to the world outside it about contemporary life, and the answer, in this case, being no. Some people — maybe a lot of people — will disagree, of course, and one thing I noticed when I went (not to the first night, but to a later performance) was that the audience was clearly not an opera crowd.
That’s a good thing for classical music, and compares very favorably with the audience at the Santa Fe Opera this summer for Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, which was essentially the opera crowd, meaning (at least to me) that the piece didn’t register (in a very artsy city) as a serious piece of contemporary art. From that point of view, it’s good to see non-opera people at the Met for Dr. Atomic, just as it was to see them at Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten earlier this year, even if I didn’t like the piece at all. Bringing classical music into contemporary artistic life is a good thing, more important than my own taste.
Mostly I agree with Rosenbaum. I might not feel as strongly as he does, maybe because I’m a musician, and responded strongly to the music, which is mostly very strong, and sometimes powerful. Overall, Dr. Atomic is miles above most new operas, both musically, and in how contemporary it feels, and, even more, how contemporary it wants to be. But that makes me all the more upset at what I think it doesn’t do.
My view of it was echoed — or really pre-echoed, since I heard this before I saw the piece — by a friend, who said he’d grade it as a B, but that this was a problem, because it needed to be an A. I’d browsed through the vocal score, and had formed some tentative opinions, and suggested that I’d put my friend’s opinion a little more strongly — the opera, I thought, announced it was an A. And so of course it even more strongly needed to be that good.
When I saw it, I thought I’d sensed exactly what the problem is. The piece, for me, carries a constant subtext about its own significance. “This is strong, important art.” All that, of course, is reinforced by the opera’s presence at the Met, by its subject, by Adams’ reputation, and by the New Yorker printing part of Adams’ newly published memoir, to coincide with the production. But beyond all that, the piece itself seems to say that it’s important.
Which meant, for me, that it felt pretentious, especially since (and here’s where I most strongly agree with Rosenbaum) it doesn’t say very much. In fact, it’s very safe. It shows us something that’s well-known, and much discussed — the shock of the first atomic bomb, the feeling that something dangerous had been unleashed, and the doubts of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the effort to create the bomb. None of this is new, to put it mildly, and the opera had nothing new to say about it. Oppenheimer is distressed. Well, we knew that, and no matter how powerfully he sings about that at the end of the first act — to the text of a John Donne poem which, like much of the libretto, only tangentially touches what was going on — we still haven’t learned or even felt anything that we (as a society) haven’t gone through many times before.
Reinforcing this is how obvious some moments on. About the Native American character (whom Rosenbaum very neatly skewers), the less said the better. An earth mother, who’s more connected to what matters than the shallow, white scientists — a cliché that made me roll my eyes. And, in a way even worse, the ending of the opera, with a Japanese recorded voice asking for help, after the bomb goes off.
This worked quite wonderfully as music — a stronger ending, purely sonically, than simply letting the orchestra die out. And, again musically, it balanced the recorded sound at the start of the opera. But it’s another cliché, and one with hoary antecedents all over popular culture. For instance: the final moment of Fail-Safe, a film about atomic war, where we see ordinary people going about their business — children playing — just before the Russians nuke New York. For instance: an early episode of the Battlestar Galactica remake, where the space command is forced to abandon some ships with many people on them, and, just before the robot Cylons nuke the ships, we see a child at play.
Yes, nuclear bombs have victims, but my two examples actually come off more strongly (at least to me) than the end of Dr. Atomic does, because in both cases the victims die because of genuinely difficult (and new) developments. We see things that actually could happen, dilemmas that might afflict us in the future, instead of (in Dr. Atomic) a well known piece of history from which we can’t learn anything we don’t already know. Better to have shown us something from a nuclear dilemma we might face today — North Korea cynically manipulating nuclear fears to gain some diplomatic points; the Pakistani scientist who wanted to give nuclear help to terrorists; Israel’s reported determination to use nuclear bombs (more readily, apparently, than other countries would — which isn’t a judgment, by the way, on the state of Israel, but might be something Israelis think about); officials of the former Soviet Union who might have thought of selling (or maybe did sell) nuclear material to terrorists.
All these things are genuine dilemmas in our current world, and there are many more of them. (The India/Pakistan nuclear faceoff; the constant nuclear readiness of the US and Russia, and so much more.) The opera is supposed to be about a Faustian bargain — you gain knowledge, you gain power, but there are consequences. We now live in the troubled wake of that bargain, but what strikes me — and could be a powerful subject for a novel or an opera or a play — is how little people think about the consequences, about the meaning of any kind of nuclear war. Do the North Koreans or Iranians or Israelis or the American military or Pakistanis or Al Quaeda or the Russian military think much about what nuclear attacks would actually be like? Do they think about the victims?
I’m guessing that our sensibilities have been dulled, through long familiarity (and also from how lucky we’ve been not to have any nuclear attacks since Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Maybe, if that’s really true, Dr. Atomic is a healthy wakeup call, but on the other hand, it might help to lull us further, because in a way it pats us on the back (and pats itself even more) for being so concerned. There’s nothing in it that could help us figure out what Israel (for instance) ought to do, if its back is to the wall, with its survival hanging by a thread.
About the music. For me the most successful music comes in the second act, which has been criticized because nothing happens. Essentially we wait until the bomb is tested for the first time, with concerns about the weather (and larger concerns about whether the bomb will work at all) coming off as very minor. But opera is a perfect medium for drama in which nothing happens, because the music can carry us. Adams’ music triumphantly does, and then tops itself with the moments leading right up to the explosion. I think — and I really mean it — that this is, in purely visceral terms, one of the most powerful musical sequences in any opera.
But the music that does all this is instrumental, or rather it’s the orchestral music that’s powerful enough to carry the opera. I found the vocal music more pedestrian, both when I looked through the score, and when I heard it. It’s not awful, and sets the words with a fair amount of finesse. But it doesn’t have much character — one person on stage sounds pretty much like another, except for obvious things, like moments where words might be highlighted to make a sarcastic point, or sequences of lyrical introspection. There’s no inner character, no sense that the people on stage have distinct personalities, no sense of who they are, or really that they’re anyone at all, except (again) for the very broadest strokes of external characterization.
One exception is Oppenheimer’s John Donne aria, which ends the first act (and it’s surely one not-so-secret secret of the opera’s success that the endings of both acts are powerful), and which really does succeed (for me) as vocal music, though as drama it seemed to say nothing more than “I’m suffering! I’m suffering!” But it said this with a lot of musical refinement. I wonder, if the opera had been called Oppenheimer (in place of the rather coy title it actually has), whether many people then might have expected more from it, if they’d have asked whether anything it says about its title character is really new or cogent.
As a footnote, I’ll add that similar questions — and reactions similar to Rosenbaum’s — surfaced, at least to me, at the long-ago New York premiere of Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China. All the music professionals I spoke to at intermission were tremendously impresssed: “At last an opera that really says something.” While dance and theater people I spoke to — maybe because they were more used to seeing art in their fields with some contemporary relevance — weren’t happy at all: “What this opera says about Nixon is completely wrong.” It’s like the fabled talking dog. After you get used to it talking, you start to look at what it says.
Adams’ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, of course really does go into new and tricky territory, trying to get inside the minds of terrorists, And therefore it’s had a lot of trouble. I don’t mean to say that controversy is any proof of value, especially artistic value, but I’m struck again by how safe Dr. Atomic is, how there’s nothing in it anybody could object to. (Except, maybe, extreme militarists, who might insist that any hesitation in the possible use of America’s nuclear arsenal would be a kind of treason. But such people, if they still exist, haven’t been part of America’s national debate for quite a while.)
And that, for me, should raise some doubts. The opera, in the end, seems far too easy to be saying things with any chance of being as important as the subtext of the work (again, at least to me) keeps telling us they are.