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.

Doctor Atomic.
The San Francisco Opera's production of Doctor Atomic

Does this ever happen to you: You rediscover key forgotten elements in over-familiar fables that give them renewed life? Take Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes."

It was Julia Sheehan, wife of filmmaker Errol Morris and co-producer of his latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, who reminded me about an aspect of this fable I'd forgotten. I was having dinner with them and their writer son, Hamilton, and describing how the experience I'd had the night before, at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Doctor Atomic, had left me deeply shaken. But in the wrong way.

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First produced in 2005, Doctor Atomic is an English-language opera about nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first test of the atomic bomb he and his scientific team had assembled at Los Alamos in 1945. It was the test that would decide whether the bomb was ready to be dropped on Japan. And how destructive the device—until then just a theoretical construct—would be.

I'd felt a keen sense of anticipation heading up to Lincoln Center for the opening. However unconventional an operatic subject, the Los Alamos test, and the test it represented for Oppenheimer's conflicted conscience, was a moment that merited the attention of high art. Oppenheimer, our Faust! The man who turned the equations of the theoretical physicists—like Faust's arcane devil-raising spells—into the weapon that changed the world and that may still be the instrument of its destruction, our Götterdämmerung.

Since I had recently been to Hiroshima and am working on a book about the new face of nuclear warfare, I'd been thinking about the nuclear version of the Faustian dilemma. Especially about the phenomenon of ineradicability. Faust signs his contract with the devil—in which he agrees to give Lucifer his soul when he dies in return for being granted all earthly wishes—with a pen dipped in his own blood. But, predictably, when it comes time to carry out his part of the bargain and descend to hell, Faust cries out for a reprieve, for divine mercy.

At the end of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, when Faust's ticket to hell is about to be punched, he cries out:

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul ...

It is one of the most heart-rending pleas in literature. But no mercy is forthcoming. Faust offers to burn his books in exchange for divine mercy, because his lust for knowledge—here's the Oppenheimer parallel—the knowledge he thought the devil could bestow on him was the reason he sold his soul.

It's too late. Books can be burned, but information cannot be destroyed. Similarly, it's too late for us. Nuclear bombs can be banned, but the knowledge—the equations—required to remake them cannot be eradicated. Oppenheimer was among the first to realize this. Once the spells for conjuring up the nuclear devil had been written down, they could be erased but not eliminated, deleted but not destroyed. They had entered the world and the world had entered hell.

Exciting stuff, then: Faust, Oppenheimer.

What material for transformation into tragic operatic art! Or so one would think, until one actually sees Doctor Atomic or, as I think of it now, the Emperor's New Opera.

There is some lack of clarity in the program about the opera's authors; it was conceived by John Adams (composer of the previous contemporary-history operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, about the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jew by Palestinian terrorists) and produced for the Met by Penny Woolcock. But the libretto has largely been "written," if that's a verb you can apply to this text, by theater and opera director Peter Sellars, who has compiled an assemblage of quotes from books and documents interspersed with the work of noted poets and dialogue of provenance uncertain to me.

Adams and Sellars have chosen to focus on the days before the first Los Alamos test, less than a month before the bomb was used on Hiroshima. And on the conflicts among—and within—the atomic scientists assembled by Oppenheimer.

I was expecting something powerful and sophisticated. And the music and the sets couldn't have been more effectively dramatic.

But the libretto, the words ... They were pedestrian, speechifying, and painfully simplistic (when not embarrassingly schlocky as in the "love scenes"). Yes, it's true, opera librettos comprise their own genre. Opera lyrics are not poetry. But these ones suffer in particular from the contrast between the pretentious grandiosity of operatic treatment and the actual, disappointing content. And "singing" relentlessly dull prose does not raise it to the level of art. Instead it makes everything sound—forgive me—bombastic.

Imagine, if you will, starting at the top of this column and "singing" it, intoning it with a tuneless, stentorian, pompous affect.

Come on, try! Give it your best mock operatic treatment:

Does this ever happen to you:
You discover key forgotten elements
In over familiar fables ...

Now imagine these (admittedly pedestrian) words being performed on what looks like a multimillion-dollar set by a male chorus making dreadfully hammy gestures at one another?

No, that still doesn't capture it. To appreciate the bad poetry of this libretto, you must see how it veers from the utterly pedestrian—

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