Thursday, October 20, 2005

Roswell That Ends Well - Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera

“Los Alamos That Ends Well” just didn’t have the same ring to it.

Here’s what I learned from John Adams’s new opera, Doctor Atomic, which I saw in San Francisco this weekend:

1. Atomic bombs don’t make good chandeliers.

2. Don’t leave your baby alone with an atomic bomb. As soon as you leave the room, it’ll come down from its spot as the light fixture (see #1) and menace your baby. (Also, don’t leave the baby in its crib under the tower where an atomic bomb is being held.)

3. When bad things happen, dancers will go skipping around to illustrate just how far to shit things have gone. If they’re skipping really fast and kind of leaping, watch out, because the atmosphere might ignite.

4. Electrons circle the nucleus in a series of swishy chassés. When the electrons are excited, they swish faster. See above.

5. Peter Sellars should be covered in Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and strapped to a mound of carnivorous fire ants.

The opera opens with a chorus of what appeared to be rejects from one of those ’50s-themed diners (heavy on the Buddy Holly impersonators) singing “Matter can neither be created nor destroyed but only altered in form. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only altered in form.” As the composer sheepishly (it was the only thing he said sheepishly too; he seems quite full of himself for being the guy who composed “News! News! News!”) noted in the pre-opera talk, that statement has been disproven, and I’m glad it has, because otherwise I would have no explanation for the opera being more than the sum of its parts. Because the parts as they are (with the exception of Gerald Finley in the lead role) are pretty weak. Sometimes laughably weak. They have dancers illustrating the motion of electrons around a nucleus here. It’s like 3-2-1 Contact or something. And yet, at the end, in spite of all the time I spent rolling my eyes at the dancers or trying not to giggle when Truman was mentioned and even the parts when I fell asleep, I was...not impressed, not touched, not really moved...I was immobile. I can’t say for sure that anything about the opera itself left me so paralyzed though; I think it was the subject matter, the immensity of it, the knowledge of what the nuclear testing at Los Alamos in 1945 led to that did it, not anything that Adams did, much less Peter Sellars (librettist and director).

Adams and Sellars both failed in almost every respect, in my opinion. Doctor Atomic’s music is something of a mishmash. There’s the usual, hectic, repetitive Adams music that reminds me of Peter Griffin’s traveling music (“Building us a bomb, building us a bomb/Hope that it goes off./Gonna blast Japan/Look, a guy named Stan”), but Adams also threw in some Debussy (though he only chose the least interesting Debussy to rip off, e.g. the draggier bits between scenes in Pelléas et Mélisande), some wild flute squeals like Stravinsky, a little Bartok in the crashier parts, and, most noticeably to me, a great deal of Britten’s War Requiem. The similarities to the War Requiem were particularly distracting, because after I noticed them, I couldn’t stop thinking of Britten’s piece and wishing that the singers were singing that instead. Every time they showed the bomb hanging from the rafters, I heard “Be slowly lifted up, thou long, black arm”, and when Kitty Oppenheimer would just.not.shut.up about things shining, I kept hearing, “Move him, move him, into the sun” from the Dies Irae section of the War Requiem. Then, I got even more sidetracked when I realized that the whole thing might’ve been better if the story of the first nuclear test had just been acted out to the music of the War Requiem. And further complicating matters, Gerald Finley’s singing was so wonderfully dramatic and of such a pure timbre that I wanted to hear him sing music that was worth singing.

Sellars’s libretto was a similar haphazard patchwork of source material. I could understand why Oppenheimer’s arias would be direct poetic quotes, because the man himself was extremely literate and often quoted poetry in everyday conversation (“Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”). The poems that Sellars chose for Oppenheimer were also appropriate in the context in which they were used—during the love scene with his wife, Oppenheimer sings an aria based on a very sensual text by Baudelaire; when he is struggling with his feelings about his creation and its upcoming test, he sings “Batter my heart, three person’d God”, a sonnet by John Donne. Finley also made the choice of poetry as text a good one because his diction was clarion, and the more archaic form of English of the Donne poem in particular, which would be more stilted in speech, was more melodic when sung than the modern mundane recitatives. With the other characters, however, poetry-as-aria was a very bad choice, and possibly even a lazy one. Kitty Oppenheimer’s arias were mostly in the form of Muriel Rukeyser poems, and she had little else to sing. The Rukeyser poems are probably beautiful, but in the context in which they were sung, they made no sense. Rukeyser’s poetry had more concrete images than the Donne, but since they had no discernible connection to the story, they were too vague and abstract to offer any insight into the character.

Another poor and lazy choice was to have the chorus sing what seemed to be direct quotes from goverment papers and scientific essays. I’m sure that Doctor Atomic will be the first and only time that the word “icosahedron” is ever sung, and rightly so. The first choral passage was especially horrendous, because it was just one complex, Latinate word after another. Government-speak is unintelligible enough as it is, but when sung by a bunch of Nurse Ratched and George McFly impersonators, it becomes intolerable. All those long -tion and -hedron words, when sung by a choir with faulty diction, just sounds like a large group of people trying to recite a tongue-twister after their teeth have been kicked in.

Sellars also went too far with his attempts to layer time in the opera. He was probably going for a cinematic effect, like scenes cutting to one another, but when all the scenery is in the same place, it just becomes confusing. At one point, the Oppenheimer’s maid Pasqualita was singing to their infant daughter in her crib. After the lullaby, Pasqualita left the stage, but the crib stayed and the frame of the bomb tower lowered over it. Some of the scientist characters came out to work on the tower, and one of them kept leaning against the crib (which still had the baby in it). Then, one of the scientists mentioned fallout, and Pasqualita came running back onstage, snatched the baby up, and started rocking it, as if to protect it from the fallout (it’s going to take a lot more than that, lady, unless your arms are made of lead). During the countdown sequence, Oppenheimer is supposed to be at the test site, and he’s interacting with the scientists and soldiers, but then Pasqualita shows up and hands him the baby. Women weren’t allowed at the test site, so what the fuck? Is Oppenheimer in two places at once? Are his wife and daughter just in his imagination and are showing up as symbols of his fear and guilt? The most hilarious time disturbance was when Oppenheimer and the others were singing about “Memories, Regrets, Spasms, Diarrhea, Constipation, Psoriasis, Tetter and Removes Corns and Calluses” at the test site, and Pasqualita comes out, showing off the walk she’s using for her application to the Ministry of Silly Walks and waving feather dusters made out of branches.

I don’t know why opera directors nowadays seem to think that every goddamn opera production needs to have dance in it. Maybe it’s some misguided attempt to make opera the most complete artform ever, but except in operas where dancing is specifically mentioned, it doesn’t work. And I really don’t think it would be missed. Opera fans and ballet/dance fans don’t seem to overlap that much. In Doctor Atomic, the dancing was just bathetic and pathetic. Peggy “I can suck the barnacles off a ship’s hull literally and figuratively” Hickey (the horrible choreographer who LA Opera insists on hiring) apparently has a Northern California cousin—Lucinda Childs. Childs’s choreography was too literal, too silly, too distracting, and too repetitive. Why repeat something that has no apparent meaning to begin with? I imagine that the movements might have some significance to the choreographer, but I think it’s lost on the audience. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing when female dancers dressed in army uniforms were carried across the stage while striking oh-so-dramatic poses, especially because up until that point, everything had been very normal. Why would a potentially catastrophic incident need to be illustrated by a group of dancers doing very simple ballet exercises in the background, when the music tells us that doings are a-transpirin’, and the singers are showing us that with their voices and their acting? Since the libretto, the program notes, and common sense tell us that Doctor Atomic is about the making of the first atomic bomb, do we really need to have dancers miming bomb-making (though it actually looked like they were making martinis; “I like my uranium-235 shaken, not stirred.”)? It was very hard to keep a straight face when one of the characters sang the word “fallout”, and the lights went all orange and all the dancers starting writhing around in a pile. Because fallout is BAD, mmmkay? And ow! Having a giant anvil fall on your head really hurts.

But the lame choreography didn’t end with the dancers. It also infected the chorus. During the five-minute (actually twenty minute; apparently when time slows down, it also gets very boring) countdown, the chorus sang about a terrifying apparition of Vishnu. A second earlier, they had been scientists, milling around drinking government coffee and munching on government ham (and cheese) sandwiches, but suddenly, the lights went all psychedelic and they THREW down their ham sandwiches and started doing what amounted to Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes on crack, touching each part of their body as they sang about it. The high point was when they got to “teeth” and they mimed the “nasty, big, pointy teeth” à la Tim the Wizard from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was like a chorus of hypnotized Alan Partridges who’ve just heard the word “Aha!” *grr*

Speaking of terrifying apparitions of Vishnu, the program notes say that one appears in the night sky before the bomb test. Hrm. That wasn’t really made clear in the opera, and I personally find it kind of, I don’t know, dumb. Clearly, Oppenheimer knew the Bhagavad Gita, but Average Joe Scientist/Buddy Holly Impersonator? I don’t know think so. Realism: 0; Adams/Sellars bullshit: 2.

The singers were mostly OK, though some of them, in spite of being American, couldn’t sing in English worth shit. Richard Paul Fink (looking disturbingly like Mr. Collins from the A&E Pride & Prejudice) was an effective villain, even though his villainy mostly consisted of being a sarcastic, self-important wanker. He’s bad because he’s not a team player, though he does “think outside the box.” It was kind of refreshing to see an operatic villain be what amounted to an office nemesis. Teller was completely over any internal struggle about making a weapon of unimaginable destruction, and was more concerned with being a killing factory—Bigger! Better! More! His enthusiasm for long-distance maiming was balanced nicely by Thomas Glenn’s Robert Wilson, who was a floppy-haired 1940s emo type who spent a lot of his time laying on the floor in the fetal position, tormented by regret. I wished he would’ve stopped singing about the letter that he and the other pinko scientists were going to send to Truman, begging him not to use the bomb, because every time they mentioned Truman, I thought that Truman would’ve just sent a letter back saying, “Bushwa! Get off your fannies!” Hee.

Eric Owens’s General Groves was an interesting combination of stereotypical bullying army guy (he often threatened meteorologists with execution if they didn’t make sure that the weather was clear for the test) and oddly pathetic weight problem guy (he had quite a long conversation with Oppenheimer about his 1020 calorie-a-day diet). Normally I would’ve said that Groves’s adventures with Weight Watchers were unnecessary, but it did give some dimension to a character who could’ve been pure stereotype.

Kitty Oppenheimer was a problematic character. It may just be my anti-female-singer prejudice talking, but I thought her character could’ve been a mute role without losing too much. In fact, Kristine Jepson’s English diction was so distorted that she might as well have been mute for all I could understand what she was singing most of the time. As written, Kitty didn’t have much of an internal life, until in the later acts, Sellars suddenly panicked and gave her a few very long arias which were Muriel Rukeyser poems set to music. Unfortunately, the poems made no sense in the context in which they were used, so again, she might as well have been mute. All I really know about Kitty Oppenheimer based on what they showed in the
opera was that she felt jealous that the bomb left her husband’s libido withered and useless, and that she liked the sauce. If they insist on using dancers in the opera, I propose making Kitty into a dancer and having her reel drunkenly around the stage, clutching a bottle and wringing her hands.

The one truly redeeming aspect of this production was Gerald Finley in the title role of J. Robert Oppenheimer. If they had hired a less talented singer, I’m almost completely certain that it would’ve been, to quote Teller, “a fizzle.” Finley is a singer who will try just about anything, and approaches every piece he does intelligently; I’ve said before that he’s a musical whore (and I mean this in the best way possible!), but he’s a damn well-prepared whore. Since so little of Adams’s music is exceptionally good, it needs a singer who can make it sound good and who has the unholy acting talent to make the boring, standing-around-and-waiting parts into tense moments. Finley’s acting is nearly as good as his singing; he combines vocal inflection, body language, and facial expressions perfectly and, importantly in a “realistic” sort of opera like Doctor Atomic, naturally. His diction is clear, and he never seemed to indulge in the vowel-as-taffy-pulling that Jepson did or the annoying sing-song recitative that English-language operas can so often lapse into. Finley’s portrayal of Oppenheimer was often somewhat ambiguous, but this is representative of the real Oppenheimer. On the one hand, he thinks that scientists should stay out of politics and just do what they’re asked to, and he agrees that the test should go forward, but on the other, it seems like he wants the bomb to be a dud, even pessimistically (though somewhat hopefully) predicting that its yield will be an unspectacular three kilotons.

The highlight of the opera is definitely Oppenheimer’s aria “Batter my heart, three person’d God”. However, Sellars refuses to just trust Finley’s instincts as a performer and instead forces him to writhe around, doing silly gestures that make it look like he’s on the receiving end of an ass-whupping from an invisible man. The miming is completely incongruous, because other than the stupid dancers, none of the other characters have to perform such histrionics, even though the other singers are far less talented than Finley and so couldn’t have carried off such a dramatic soliloquy on their own with a lot of direction. On top of that, I found that the aria would’ve been much more striking if it had been sung unaccompanied. The music that leads in and out of it is actually quite dramatic, but the aria’s music is fairly dull and interferes with Finley’s voice. The aria did focus Oppenheimer’s feelings about the bomb and got rid of some of the ambiguity, especially when at the end, he goes behind the curtain that is covering the bomb, and you can see his silhouette reaching up to it as it hangs there like some monstrous spider’s egg sac. All during the aria, he had gone up and down the stage, torn between his hatred of the consequences of his work and his desire to see it all come to fruition. Physics is so often an art of the mind that never results in something concrete; Oppenheimer finally made something tangible with his art, but it is a horrible weapon instead of a beautiful creation.

I’m being very hard on Adams and Sellars, but I think it’s because the opera could’ve been so much better than it is. They both relied too much on borrowing—Adams borrowing from other composers (the lesser offense, since it’s somewhat inevitable), and Sellars borrowing from original sources verbatim instead of shaping them into something cohesive and intelligible. Ultimately, the majority of the emotional force of the opera is borrowed too—what left me shocked into silence at the end wasn’t the power of Adams’s music, it was a recording of a Japanese woman’s voice played over the speakers, which called up more horrific images of the atomic bomb’s destruction than anything Adams could have written.

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