Not Over Till Fat Boy Drops- Opera Takes on Los Alamos

Opera, the most multilayered art form, loves war for its multiplicity of passions. Opera also fears war—or at least the direct depiction of it onstage. Most opera composers have sensibly realized that the fury of battle is better conveyed by the sound of clashing instruments than by the spectacle of extras charging at one another with rubber swords or plastic rifles. And so when war makes its presence known in opera, it generally does so in the form of bulletins from the front or expressions of hope, exultation or despair about the outcome. In operatic war, discretion is the better part of valor.

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, which had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on Oct. 1, takes this axiom to an extreme. Set at the Manhattan Project center at Los Alamos, N.M., in June 1945, it focuses entirely on the final preparations for history’s most cataclysmic act of war: the dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II itself goes unmentioned. So do current events of the time, except for the brief news that Germany has surrendered; that U.S. B-29’s are mercilessly bombing Tokyo and other Japanese targets; and that “the President of the United States” is meeting with “Joe Stalin” at Potsdam.

Also unmentioned is any connection between America’s invention of nuclear terror and the nuclear dangers of today—though that subject comes inescapably to mind during the spooky silence that accompanies the opera’s final moment of detonation in the desert. More documentary than polemic, Doctor Atomic lets the consequence of that fateful act speak for itself. Like the day-to-day efforts of the thousands of scientists and their helpers who worked in that secret lab on a mesa, Doctor Atomic is ruthlessly claustrophobic in its countdown to the successful testing of the first plutonium bomb. It is also an unusually penetrating, if ultimately frustrating, work of musical theater—certainly the most powerful, specifically American opera about war ever written.

Unlike Mr. Adams’ previous operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, this one cannot be labeled a “CNN opera.” The how-to, almost childish feverishness that fueled the making of the bomb 60 years ago is an ideal vehicle for Mr. Adams’ effulgent late-late romanticism. Both literally and in spirit, he borrows from Wagner’s doomsday extravaganza Die Gotterdämmerung; Sibelius’ awesome symphonic vistas; the primal summonings of Orff’s Carmina Burana; and even—in a scratchy opening snippet—Jo Stafford’s rendition of “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which is one of the opera’s few lapses into facile irony. But Mr. Adams has always been the master of his inspirations, and in this, his richest, most inventive score to date, he keeps the ear and the nervous system—and, on several stirring occasions, the heart—hyper-engaged.

I was less enthralled by the cut-and-paste libretto of Mr. Adams’ longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars, who has also directed the piece. Working with the elegant, spare stage designs of Adrianne Lobel, the kaleidoscopic lighting of James F. Ingalls and the fluent, if occasionally stilted, choreography of Lucinda Childs, Mr. Sellars has captured the atmosphere of men and women regimented by military and scientific patriotism with the brisk, no-nonsense style of 1940’s newsreels and “war effort” documentaries.

Since the outcome is a foregone conclusion, dramatic conflict is confined to debate and minutiae: the edgy Edward Teller’s dislike of teamwork; a letter from another physicist, Leo Szilard, urging the scientists to take a moral stand against the bomb’s use; the plea of an idealistic young physicist, Robert Wilson, to give the Japanese the option of peaceful surrender; the exasperation of the project’s commander, Gen. Leslie Groves, over the increasingly foul weather; dire warnings from a medical officer about the deadly toxic properties of plutonium; and so on. An opening chorus gives a physics lesson in nuclear fission. In light of Mr. Sellars’ left-leaning politics, it’s no surprise that the only butt of humor in the opera is the general, who’s more concerned with the devastation wrought by brownies on his waistline than by the human effects of the bomb on Japanese targets. As I said, this is a quintessentially American opera.

Much of this information is conveyed through quotes from historic and scientific documents, which are presented like items on a checklist. The libretto breaks new ground for tongue twisters, requiring the singers to deliver words like “practicable” and “icosahedron” with lyric ease. That most of this registers with minimal irritation is testament both to Mr. Adams’ ability to set document-speak with heightened unremarkability and to Mr. Sellars’ meticulous attention to the performers’ vocal inflections and body language. As always in a Sellars production, speech and song are indivisible.

Doctor Atomic was initiated as part of a “Faust Project” by the San Francisco Opera’s outgoing general director, Pamela Rosenberg, and no more Faust-like figure can be imagined than its title character, chief scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. An intellectual devoted equally to the pursuit of scientific discovery and poetic truth, “Oppie” was both a team captain and an unabashed eccentric, a man whose triumph and subsequent downfall uncannily mirrored the ambiguities and trajectory of the bomb. In Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (2004), Jeremy Bernstein quotes the physicist I.I. Rabi about his close friend and colleague: “Once he gets into something he gets into it with both feet. He becomes a leader …. [Yet] he had this mystic streak that could sometimes be very foolish …. When he was riding high he could be very arrogant. When things went against him he could play the victim. He was a most remarkable fellow.”

Oppenheimer has all the makings of an unmurderous counterpart to Verdi’s Otello, but in Doctor Atomic, he’s little more than a wisp—an enigma of an enigma. Of the charismatic organizer, who was able to yoke the energies of the best and the brightest of his generation, we see nothing. There’s no trace of his spellbinding scientific brilliance and social charm (amply displayed in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s superb new biography, American Prometheus); no trace of the “overweening ambition” that General Groves spotted in his first meeting with the unlikely leftist he chose to lead the war’s most security-sensitive effort.

Mr. Sellars’ Oppenheimer is a shadowy guy in a porkpie hat on the sidelines, distancing himself from the blustery Groves and the prickly Teller with cryptic acerbities, blandly asserting his loyalty to the “upper crust” in Washington, and more often drifting into a private refuge of musings drawn from two of his two favorite poets, John Donne and Charles Baudelaire, or the Bhagavad Gita. This portrait of Oppenheimer, who was a lightning rod for more passion than perhaps any other American of the mid-20th century, is a fizzle.

Still, Mr. Adams has given him the opera’s most memorable music. In a love scene at the end of Act I with his wife Kitty (here depicted as a maternal Eternal Feminine figure quite at odds with the difficult and dislikeable woman she was for many of her husband’s friends), Oppenheimer extols (à la Baudelaire) the intoxicating allure of her hair in an aria of ravishing, exotic beauty. This is followed by the opera’s most stunning moment, a setting of Donne’s tortured, tough-minded love sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (which inspired Oppenheimer to give the bomb test the name Trinity). In music that evokes the self-glorifying, self-flagellating soliloquies of Baroque cantatas, we finally sense the tragic dissonance in this “remarkable fellow.”

The opening-night performance was not all it could be. Richard Paul Fink as Teller, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Eric Owens as General Groves, and James Maddalena as the weatherman, Jack Hubbard, were strong and assured. Donald Runnicles conducted an energetic if sometimes texturally opaque reading of the daunting, hugely massed orchestral score. But balances between the lightly miked singers and the surging accompaniment were erratic, and the voices of Kristine Jepson as Kitty and Beth Clayton as Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers’ Indian servant, frequently got lost in the tumult.

As Oppenheimer, the striking Canadian baritone Gerald Finley sang impressively but acted rather one-dimensionally. He had the man’s nervous chain-smoking down pat, as well as his oblique stance and jerky gait, but his range of telling detail, both vocally and psychologically, was limited. Still, if his commanding Don Giovanni at the Met last season is any indication, he’s likely to grow in confidence and subtlety as the run (and future runs) of this arresting work continues. (The last San Francisco performance is Oct. 22.)

Despite my cavils, Doctor Atomic is without question the most interesting American opera in some time. To the degree that it succeeds, it does so because it matches the open-ended complexity of its subject with the open-ended complexity of opera. A few days after the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos was disbanded, Oppenheimer addressed the 500 or so people who remained at the site. About the debate over whether it had been right to make the bomb, he said, “Some people, I think, were motivated by curiosity and rightly so; and some by a sense of adventure, and rightly so. Others had more political arguments and said, ‘Well, we know that atomic weapons are in principle possible, and it is not right that the threat of that unrealized possibility should hang over the world. It is right that the world should know what can be done in their field and deal with it.’ And the people added to that that it was a time when all over the world men would be particularly ripe and open for dealing with this problem because of the immediacy of the evils of war, because of the universal cry from everyone that one could not go through this thing again, even a war without atomic bombs.”

The same problem is still with us today, and Doctor Atomic, with that honesty peculiar to opera, asks us to deal with it.