Doctor Atomic: A Brilliant Luminescence

A few regulars who drop by for grooming sessions and pant-hoots at the Refuge are probably aware that I am a long time J. Robert Oppenheimer fangrrl, or more accurately at my age, a fancrone. So when I discovered that Doctor Atomic was playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I impulsively bought tickets for yesterday's matinee performance and invited two friends to accompany me.

i-b24c737d1d25a4d8bb85b2540acd24a0-Oppie and Tellar.jpg

Gerald Finley as Oppie (left) and Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, right.

More below the cut.

John Adams' and Peter Sellars' (no, not the Dr. Strangelove species) opera focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the events from June 1945 to the detonation of the Gadget on June 16, 1945. The opera premiered in San Francisco in October 2005 and has been performed in 2007 by the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam; production is underway at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

The Met's version had some controversy. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, wanted some significant changes made to the opera's staging -- changes that Sellars' declined to accept. Thus Penny Woolcock, a British film maker, took charge of the staging. Some criticism has been levied at Woolcock's grittier imagery versus Sellars' surrealism, but for this viewer, Woolcock's staging worked well.

I won't belabor a long review here since Alex Ross, a music critic, has done this so well in his blog Countdown (written in Oct. 2005) and in the New Yorker, False Dawn: The Met's Take on John Adams's Doctor Atomic (Oct. 27, 2008).

I loved the production for so many reasons: gorgeous voices, esp. Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer and Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer (Kitty's lyrics, influenced by Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, have a hallucinatory quality); Woolcock's staging and the costumes (period fifties garb and a group of actors in extraordinary kuchina Native American costumes standing over the increasingly agitated scientists and military personnel); and Sellars' exquisite libretto which fuses historical dialog ("Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart" -- spoken by Oppie a couple of minutes before the detonation), science and engineering (paeans to energy, matter and implosion, e.g.,

We surround the plutonium core

from thirty two points

spaced equally around its surface,

the thirty-two points

are the centers of the

twenty triangular faces

of an icosahedron interwoven with the twelve pentagonal faces

of a dodecahedron.

We squeeze the sphere.

Bring the atoms closer.

Til the subcritical mass

goes supercritical.

We disturb the stable nucleus.

Lyrics are taken from the works of Baudelaire, the Bhagavad-Gita and John Donne. The latter provided the lyrical power behind Finley-as-Oppenheimer's impassioned and heart-wrenching aria:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; For, you

As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe

Shine, and seek to mend;

Batter my heart, three person'd God;

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow

burn and make me new.

Batter my heart, three person'd God; For, you

As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe

Shine, and seek to mend;

Batter my heart, three person'd God;

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow

burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,

Labor to'admit you, but

Oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue,

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,

But am betroth'd unto your enemy,

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Here are a couple of video clips:

Adams' music will not be to everyone's taste, but as a Stravinsky aficionado, I enjoyed its harmonies, dissonance and the lyrically melodic which all inflect the score. Most striking was how time is stretched out as the countdown approaches, from the frantic atmosphere in June 1945 to the long seconds before the blast.

My only two complaints: I wanted to see Vishnu/Shiva (dammit, I mean, Woolcock could have pulled this off with her use of projection and fabric) and the final "blast" of light would have been more effective as illumination of the performers' faces instead of the backdrop behind them. Otherwise, I recommend this opera (the performance in Amsterdam is out on DVD), which so lyrically embodies the moral complexities that the scientists and engineers of the Manhattan Project faced, and which we, as scientists and engineers in other venues, often confront albeit in less dramatic ways.

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Out of curiosity, do you have a rough estimate of the percentage of people below, say 50 y.o., attended the showing?

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 09 Nov 2008 #permalink

Onkel Bob: I'd guess at least 1/3, maybe even 1/2 of the audience was under the age of 50, but yeah, there were a lot of geriatrics (like myself) in the crowd.

At our cinema presentation, the hall was ~4/5 full (as opposed to >100% for a Verdi etc). Of these I'd say 1/3 were less than 60.

Edited by Doc Bushwell. For whatever reason, Movable Type did not recognize the mathematical "less than" sign.

Thanks! I am not an opera aficionado. The frau dragged me to Pirates at City Opera, and I have earned a 10 year exemption from future events. Hopefully, in those years my tinnitus will progress to the point that I earn a permanent medical exemption.
Nevertheless, this subject intrigued me. I am curious how well the older population (and the unquestionable base of opera's customer base) received this topic / treatment. I also wonder if it will inject some youth into the opera audience.
It appears the older audience still attends and are not afraid of new compositions. I'm guessing that Adams is "accepted" into the repertoire. Interesting, that it attracts a somewhat younger audience.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 10 Nov 2008 #permalink