by Karren Alenier

By sheer mass alone — an orchestra of 70 musicians, a cast of 13 principal and 45 choral singers, a dance company of 8 — John Adams, Peter Sellars, and the San Francisco Opera on October 1, 2005, have produced Doctor Atomic, a grand opera of significant impact to an opening night standing-room-only audience. However, it is the energy of Adams' music that transforms Sellars' found libretto of extant letters, government documents, memoirs by scientists working on the Manhattan Project, celebrated poetry, and American Indian song into a monumental force. This force is a collision that breaks open the supreme horror of World War II, the explosion of the atomic bomb into the light of today¹s disasters: hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Doctor Atomic demonstrates that we as a nation are not prepared (and may never be prepared) for such acts of devastation.


Prominent critics have written passionately about the music Adams has created for Doctor Atomic. Calling the work a "three-hour symphony of dread," Alex Ross, who spent time over a several week period with the creators and cast of Doctor Atomic, said in his 9000-word essay published in The New Yorker magazine dated October 3, 2005:

    "Doctor Atomic begins not with music but with noise: a two-minute electronic collage of industrial groans and screeches, into which is mixed the roar of airplanes, military voices, and a snippet of Jo Stafford singing 'The Things We Did Last Summer.' It suggests the buzzing of the innards of the bomb as it bleeds through radio static. All this will rain down on the audience from speakers that the sound designer, Mark Grey, has installed all over the San Francisco Opera House."

Ross notes the change from the dissonance of scene 1 to scene 2 as a shock of beauty as Kitty Oppenheimer's sings through the poem of Muriel Rukeyser and with mixed emotions to her preoccupied husband, "Am I in your light?" Adams had told Ross that Oppenheimer's answer — communicated through a prose poem of Charles Baudelaire — required a French sound that Ross described as "surging, shimmering textures out of Debussy."

In the third and final scene of Act I, Oppenheimer, as sung achingly by baritone Gerald Finley, delivers his dark-night-of-the-soul aria through the John Donne sonnet that begins "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." Ross writes, "The aria is in the key of D minor, in the manner of a Renaissance lament, with a hint of synagogue chant; Oppenheimer sings a grand, doleful, nobly stammering melody, while the orchestra mimics the sound of viols and lutes."

Only a writer who spent days hearing this opera could capture the details that Ross offers. On his blog Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise ( October 4, 2005, he says, "Doctor Atomic is the most complexly enthralling thing that's come along since I've been a critic." A Harvard graduate, Ross started as a critic for The New York Times in 1992 and moved to The New Yorker in 1996.

Anthony Tommasini senior music critic of The New York Times made these observations in his review dated October 2, 2005

    "In Doctor Atomic, Adams, 56, breaks new ground. Whole spans of the orchestral and choral music tremble with textural density. Stacked-up clusters and polytonal harmonies have stunning bite and pungency. Skittish instrumental lines come close to sounding like riffs from a serialist score. The vocal writing is wondrously varied, sometimes jittery and naturalistic, sometimes melismatic and elegiac. You hear evocations of sci-fi film scores and bursts of Varèsian frenzy.

     "When he needs to propel the music forward, Adams creates a din of pummeling rhythms, fractured meters and jolting repeated figures: call it atomic Minimalism. Yet tension runs even through the ruminative, wistful episodes, like the bedtime scene between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. "

American Allan Ulrich writing for the British The Observer/Guardian Unlimited on October 9, 2005, said:

    "Adams has transcended his minimalist roots. The chugging ostinatos so prominent in Nixon in China have yielded to a vocabulary that encompasses Varese's dissonant effusions, Wagner's brooding harmonies and Debussy's filigree instrumentations. Adding to the dense orchestral textures, clarified valiantly by conductor Donald Runnicles, are the computerized sounds ringing around the auditorium."


As stated in this writer's review for posted on October 4,

    "Predominately in this new opera, Adams explores new musical territory such that Doctor Atomic does not sound anything like his operas Nixon in China or The Death of Klinghoffer. The closest Adams veers into that Philip Glass sound of lyric repetitions is in Oppenheimer's aria based on the John Donne sonnet that begins, 'Batter my heart, three person'd God.'"


Plenty of critics have made it clear that Doctor Atomic is flawed and not up to their standards. It is instructive to visit and to see the range of opinions.


In an informal talk given at the Berkeley public library, San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg spoke candidly about the problems suffered with Doctor Atomic. When she approached John Adams in 1999 with her idea about writing an opera on Oppenheimer, Adams said he did not have another opera in him. The protests that erupted after the San Francisco Opera premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer made him feel that writing operas was not worth his time. Richard Rhodes' tome The Making of the Atomic Bomb helped changed Adams' mind.

Rosenberg said the next problem, and one she labeled "heart attack number 1," occurred in the spring of 2004 when poet Alice Goodman withdrew from the project. Goodman, who had collaborated with Adams and Sellars on Nixon in China or The Death of Klinghoffer, cited personal commitments that were taking priority. Rosenberg also mentioned a curious letter from Goodman that addressed Goodman's concerns about anti-Semitism in the treatment of Oppenheimer. Possibly, the collaborators had a disagreement about what timeframe of Oppenheimer's life would be treated. Rosenberg said that originally the collaborators were planning to take the story into the mid 1950s when Oppenheimer was called up by Senator McCarthy and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Adams and Sellars told Rosenberg there was just too much material and probably enough for two operas.

Heart attack number 2 occurred when Sellars said he and Adams would piece together the libretto from existing sources. Rosenberg said she cried in relief when Sellars read his libretto to her. For some critics, the libretto does not work because they feel it is too dispassionate and certainly not in keeping with standard operatic storytelling.

One tension-filled thread this writer noticed from Doctor Atomic was the impressionistic references reminding one of current day calamities: "The evacuation routes are inadequate and could be a disaster." "Send officer Bush up the tower to prevent sabotage." "The radio connection to the tower is out of order." "Ground zero." Statements and phrases like these evoke powerful emotional response if an operagoer listens to the breaking news of our time.


Some critics are not pleased with Act II. It slows down to what Sellars described in his opening night introductory talk (he replaced John Adams who had laryngitis) as "time within time." Minutes become hours in countdown situations and on the night that the first atomic bomb was exploded, thunderstorms interfered. Act II juxtaposes the following two scenes: the black comedy of General Groves haranguing the meteorologist to sign off that the weather would improve for the launching of the bomb and the moral agony of the young scientist Robert Wilson who climbs the launching tower not only fearing for his life but for all humankind against the scenes of the intensely prophetic songs of Kitty Oppenheimer and the nurse maid Pasqualita who stay up all night hovering over the crib of Oppenheimer's youngest child and worrying about the consequences for future generations.

Sellars' opening night talk also emphasized that although he and Adams were looking at "the impact of The Gadget (code name for the bomb) on civilization," they were "placing the human factor center stage." Indeed the last scene lit in red with human bodies rolling and writhing on the floor looking up in expectation takes precedence over the explosion of the bomb whose blast is never heard. On Sellars' stage, people do take precedence over special effects.


Casting problems included the mid July loss of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who was scheduled to sing the role of Kitty Oppenheimer. Ms. Hunt was reported to have suffered a back injury. Tenor Tom Randle in the role of junior scientist Robert Wilson, however, was replaced in late September by the less experienced Thomas Glenn. Director Peter Sellars said that although Randle was a "cherished artist and long-time collaborator, he was not well cast in the role as it evolved."


Two weeks before the premiere, Rosenberg found out that Berkeley physics professor Marvin Cohen said that the opening lines of the opera, "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can be neither created or destroyed" are wrong. In fact Cohen had told Adams a year ago that the opening lines were incorrect. Apparently the lines were taken from a dumbed down text prepared for the layperson by the Manhattan Project. Einstein's formula E=MC², which is what makes these two statements by themselves wrong, was discussed later in this text. Adams said changes would have to wait for the productions scheduled for Amsterdam and Chicago. This writer wonders whether the opening will be reinvented or whether the effect of the squared speed of light on matter will be worked into the original lines.  This kind of question is typically what artists do not like to answer until after the fix is made because it disturbs the visitation of the Muse.


Looking at the spectrum of world premieres coming up this season, this writer predicts Doctor Atomic will stand out without close competition. The notable line up includes Philip Glass' Waiting for the Barbarians that premiered September 10 in East Germany to an opening night audience who gave the work a 15-minute standing ovation. Tobias Picker's fourth opera An American Tragedy opens at the Metropolitan Opera in December. In the spring 2006 at Los Angles Opera is Julie Taymor's Grendel with music by Elliot Goldenthal and libretto assistance from poet J.D. McClatchy.  Opening in academic theaters are Ned Rorem's Our Town and Lowell Liebermann's Miss Lonelyhearts, both of these separate operas with librettos by the prolific J.D. McClatchy.

The factors making Doctor Atomic exceptional are:

    The music of Doctor Atomic, which shows a new direction for Adams, has been praised by some of the top critics in the U.S.

    The subject concerning a weapon of mass destruction and the men who made this bomb informs current concerns in the U.S. and has drawn a lot of media coverage. Many operas and all of those mentioned in this season's list of serious competitors are based on a single work of literature that has been adapted for opera. What Sellars did by drawing from a variety of sources was take a huge risk in defiance of usual theater approaches.

    Although Adams said he was not interested in writing a third opera, Pamela Rosenberg, a well-respected opera company general director, convinced Adams to write Doctor Atomic and then stood solidly behind the work despite a significant series of problems.

    John Adams and Peter Sellars have worked collaboratively on three operas that have been or will be produced multiple times both in the United States and Europe. Co-producers of Doctor Atomic, the Netherlands Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago will air the work in the 2007-2008 season. Music publisher Boosey & Hawkes are advertising that Doctor Atomic will also have productions at the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera in 2008. Given the growing list of new productions for Doctor Atomic, Adams and Sellars will have the time and money to make any changes to improve and tighten the work.

The combination of Adams' new direction for his music, Sellars' risk-taking libretto that not only speaks to today's issues but also to those spanning human history, the support from a general director of international reputation who has solidly stood behind the birth and development of this work, and the opportunity for follow-on productions surely influenced by the track record of the creators will be hard for any opera premiering this season to compete with Doctor Atomic.


The closest competitor will be Waiting for the Barbarians by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton. Hampton is a British playwright known for his play based on the novel Les Liaison Dangerous and for the movie Dangerous Liaisons. Hampton's libretto is faithfully based on J. M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians, which is considered one of Coetzee's finest pieces of work.In 2003, Coetzee, a South African, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. So far, there are two follow on productions scheduled for the Het Muziektheater Amsterdam next September and for the Austin Lyric Opera in January 2007.

In the field of opera, Glass, who is the composer of 21 operas of varying lengths and acclaim, is best known for his first opera Einstein on the Beach, which was directed and designed by Robert Wilson. The plotless libretto consists of sung musical scales, numbers, and short segments of poetry or text on themes of general relativity, nuclear weapons, science, and AM radio. Librettist credited for this opera include autistic poet Christopher Knowles, choreographer Lucinda Childs, actor Samuel M. Johnson, and director Robert Wilson. After Einstein made its premiere July 25, 1976, in Avignon, France, it was produced that year in Hamburg, Paris, Belgrade, Venice, Brussels, Rotterdam, and New York at the Metropolitan Opera. Robert Wilson rented the Metropolitan for a one-night performance.

If one compares the librettos of these two Glass operas with that of Doctor Atomic, Doctor Atomic settles in the middle between the radically experimental five-hour-no-intermission Einstein on the Beach and the linear story line approach of Waiting for the Barbarians. The music according to the critics who were able to get to East Berlin was thoroughly Glass for better or worse depending on one's interest initially in this composer. Wishing to take nothing away from Philip Glass whose musical style has clearly influenced John Adams particularly in his first two operas, this writer remains eager to hear Waiting for the Barbarians, but, based on published reactions so far, Barbarians just does not have the vibrations of excitement or far-reaching influence that Doctor Atomic has achieved.


This writer will level the playing field about the success of the upcoming operas by respected composers Tobias Picker, Ned Rorem, Elliot Goldenthal, and Lowell Liebermann by saying she expects the accomplishment of their music to equal or surpass the best work they have each produced. No chatter from the underground makes one expect less.

There is no particular expectation that An American Tragedy with libretto by Gene Scheer will veer from a linearly told story or have some extraordinary experimental interpretation imposed by the well-liked and accomplished director Francesco Zambello. The Met is probably hoping Picker's opera will follow in the successful tracks of their 1999 commission The Great Gatsby by John Harbison.

Although Our Town by Thornton Wilder was experimental in its day, one expects the libretto of J.D. McClatchy to closely follow the original structure but just to be pared down in the way most opera librettos are. Besides the family of Thornton Wilder expects this, given what J.D. McClatchy said to this writer in an earlier interview.

Because Julie Taymor is the originator and director of Grendel, one can expect something visually arresting. McClatchy who aided Taymor with her libretto had some unfettered fun by suggesting that the monster Grendel be the only character that speaks modern English. Could Grendel achieve the runaway success of Taymor and Disney's Broadway musical The Lion King? Although the opera house is in Los Angeles, it belongs to their General Director, Plácido Domingo, and not the Disney estate. Still, with all the irons Domingo has in his multi-tiered career as general director of two major opera companies located on the East and West coasts of the United States, as champion of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera, and as a world-class tenor and conductor, his attention to Grendel could not equal the time and energy that Pamela Rosenberg put into Doctor Atomic.

This writer expects the libretto of Miss Lonelyhearts to be J.D. McClatchy's best and most passionately inspired work. He managed with some difficulty to get the rights to Nathanael West's short novel by the same name and, in this opera collaboration unlike the others, he initiated the first contact with composer Lowell Liebermann who wrote the music and words for his first opera The Picture of Dorian Gray. Liebermann's first response to McClatchy was that the composer-librettist preferred working alone. However, that changed and the prospect of setting West's story greatly appealed to Liebermann as well.


Each of these five operas by Philip Glass, Tobias Picker, Ned Rorem, Elliot Goldenthal, and Lowell Liebermann will be works of art worth experiencing. However, none of these new operas have (or had in the case of Waiting for the Barbarians) the countdown tension behind them that will bring in disparate communities eager to know about these operas as Doctor Atomic has. How many operas would elicit an endorsement from a scientific association or public reference from poets commemorating the 60th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, which was written in the shadows of the atomic and hydrogen bombs?

For Pamela Rosenberg who leaves San Francisco Opera at the end of December to take charge of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Doctor Atomic may be her parting contribution to opera repertory. For John Adams, Doctor Atomic might be the door opening to other operas. The controversial libretto Peter Sellars pieced together for Doctor Atomic may be the way in for a younger audience who is tuned in to intense listening experiences that criticize current day social and political behaviors. Doctor Atomic is not rap, but the combustible physics of this work does knock on the door of operatic futures.

Photos - Terrence McCarthy 


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About This Article


©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier is a poet and librettist and writes
a monthly column for Scene4 (q.v. here)

For more of her commentary and articles, check the




november 2005

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