Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 24 2008 7:34 PM

The Opera's New Clothes

Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic.

(Continued from Page 1)

[Deep operatic voice] Well how do you feel?
[Less deep operatic voice] Well, pretty excited.

—to the consciously "poetic." Not merely when the libretto uses actual poetry taken from Donne and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, but when it give us lines like:

The hackneyed light of evening
Quarrels with the bulbs ...

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Who or what is being "hackneyed" here? Sellars does not make it clear in his libretto what—if anything—he wrote and what he "appropriated." But clearly he has a career as a curator of bad poetry. His "appropriations" sound fake-profound when not merely ridiculous (the way they might not sound in context). Even Donne's "Holy Sonnet," which is magnificent, is mangled.

I found myself sitting stunned in the well-dressed opening-night crowd. Rarely an operagoer myself (I prefer poetry and drama without orchestral distractions), I'd nonetheless always respected operagoers for what I presumed to be their sophisticated taste. What amazed me was the respectful, reverent, awed look on the faces of the crowd around me. I could glimpse them most clearly when the lights came up for intermission.

Virtually all of the other faces in the audience had this somber, awed, this-is-important-art-we-are-witnessing look. A look of suffering: "We are weighed down by the terrible profundity of it all. We're in the Metropolitan Opera, for God's sake. This thing must be profound!"

But then I recalled these lines from the "love scene" between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty:

... only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love ...

I'm sorry to have to say it, but there are an abundance of lyrics like this in the libretto, which made Doctor Atomic begin to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera. (And, yes, I get it: "Splitting the skull" is like splitting the atom! Stop cringing; it's literary! No, sorry: It's ludicrous.)

I have rarely felt so alone as I felt at that intermission. I felt like the kid in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Do words not matter in opera? It's not something I'd thought about, because opera is so often in a foreign language, which discourages close reading. But I began to wonder whether opera follows different rules: Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? Do opera buffs believe words don't need to be well-chosen but are elevated to poetic heights merely by the sonorities, or snore-ities, that they are "sung" to? In Europe, they boo lustily at badly sung arias. What is one to do in America at offensively trivializing words?

In any case, the next evening as I was talking about my "Emperor's New Clothes" feeling, Julia Sheehan told me she'd recently reread the original Hans Christian Andersen fable and found an aspect of it that she (and I) had forgotten.

She'd always wondered, she said, why everyone in the fable went along with the gag and no one but the little boy spoke up and said the emperor was naked.

Well, I said, you know, conformity, peer pressure, fear of punishment, right?

Turns out there was another element: In the Andersen version, everyone was told ahead of time that the emperor's new costume was so radical and different that stupid people wouldn't even be able to see it. And nobody wanted to be considered stupid. Which reminded me of a feeling I often have at overhyped Broadway dramas about "important" subjects: The applause you hear at the end is the audience applauding itself. Just for being there at what they've been told is such an important artistic event. Stupid people wouldn't understand.

That had to be it! With the entire apparatus of cultural capital supporting the idea that it was important and profound and thus good to be there in the luxuriant rosy glow of the nation's premier opera house, their assumptions cushioned by the Met's velvet seats, how could one dissent? If you didn't think you were witnessing greatness, you marked yourself as mentally challenged.

What was fascinating was that three of New York City's best critics carefully seemed to avoid a critique of the words. Yes, the libretto was some kind of verbal assemblage. But does that mean its aural effect is more important than its oral content? On a subject like this, the moral coherence of the words—or lack thereof—seems a worthy subject for review. Instead, perhaps understandably given the incoherence of the assemblage, the critics focused their attention on the music, which I, too, found powerful. But they didn't seem bothered by the emptiness of the words. Do words not affect how an opera is judged?

In New York magazine we are told the libretto mixes "leaden lingo" and "opaque poetry," but somehow that doesn't matter because the music and sets are so good. The New York Times critic strenuously praised just about everything in the opera while artfully avoiding any explicit reference to the words. The New Yorker mostly avoids the subject, saying "purely as an experience in sound, the Met's Atomic was a triumph." He must be talking about the sound, not the words, when he refers to the "skull-splitting" duet as "sumptuous." And the sapient Clive Barnes made the contradiction most explicit when he called the opera "terrific" but admitted that the libretto was "dull." "Terrific" and "dull." Sorry, they don't go together. It's as if the critics felt the music was all that mattered or wanted so badly to praise the opera for its "daring" and profound subject matter that they found ways to minimize the emptiness of its actual verbal content. Isn't opera meant to aspire to a fusion of greatness of words and music, not to have one come limping behind the other in the dusk? I wonder whether this acceptance of verbal mediocrity is common. I find it puzzling.

But did the audience take the words seriously? Split my skull and tickle my brains with love, but I think they did! After all, you got relevance, nuclear doom, the Faustian dilemma. One-stop shopping for thematic richness. But poetry is more than thematically serious speech set up in stanza form. A libretto is not a poem but it is at least—theoretically—aesthetically elevated speech.

Sadly, what you didn't have was humanity: Who wouldn't give anything for a brilliant artist trying to imagine what was going through Oppenheimer's head at such a time? But the operatic mode distances and dehumanizes those bombastically announcing their inner thoughts. Thus ludicrous "love scenes" are required to humanize him. Instead, they merely make him sound foolish:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!

He hears a lot in her noisy hair, he goes on to tell us.

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