Oppenheimer, yes; Dr. Atomic, no

There is nothing quite as upsetting to me as a failed promise. To give an example, my younger brother recently asserted his opinion to me that Zoolander was very possibly the funniest movie he'd ever seen. Imagine my despair, since I believed him. But let's take a real example, say, Peter Sellars getting up in front of a not unintelligent audience last Saturday and explaining that his Dr. Atomic was designed as political protest. Imagine my despair--no, not despair, let's call it outrage--upon discovering how little he meant it.

Sellars made one comment that has stuck with me and which I am currently pondering in my heart. The second act of Dr. Atomic, he said, was erratic, hysterical, long-winded, emotionally overwrought, not to be comprehended. It had too much going on. It spilled over the edges. It was illogical. Consequently, it dragged. It existed, he said, precisely because this is what opera is; this is what opera does best. Opera is illogical, opera gives representation to the unrepresentable gnarled unfathomables that proceed from the human brain in no particular order, but are nonetheless needing to be expressed. Opera is the excess, the remainder (sorry, no more Lacan) that needs to get out somehow.

For Peter Sellars, clearly, opera is interesting and glorious because it is a really terrific medium for unrepresentable excess. But I am about to fall out of my chair. The second act of Dr. Atomic is like trying to escape from the trash compacter on board the Death Star. There is no way out, and there is a lot of trash, plus a man-eating eel trying to eat your legs. There is a train of (allegedly) Hindi god-knows-who's parading in a column around the perimeter of the stage holding leafy boughs. It's not Stravinsky tonight at the opera, but Nijinsky's pagan Russian costumes are there anyway. There are a couple dark-haired kids (children of Kitty Oppenheimer's nursemaid) who perform a much less complicated, but still entirely opaque ritual involving repetitive hand movements. There are huge, wheely black towers filled with buttons and button operators to frantically push buttons for up to one half hour, plus lots of soldiers. Is this the glory of opera?

Apart from there being no Vikings in evidence, or giants, I admit, Dr. Atomic fills the Operatic requirements to a T. Firstly, you have your hysterical female. Poor Kitty Oppenheimer has a nervous breakdown for the ENTIRE OPERA. In the beginning, she sings flighty verses written by some female poet. (Obviously, she's not nameless, but Kitty's verses ARE. They cover a great deal of ground, lighting on no less than every essential life sentiment: Sadness, Joy, Despair and Death, Love, Beauty ... but what isn't this poetry about? Hint: it isn't about THEME OF THE OPERA.)

Dr. Atomic also covers what in my view is perhaps the essential Operatic must-have: stage movement may not under any circumstances appear to be motivated by anything. In short, there must be no good acting. Voila: in my favorite moment, in the second act, Kitty sleeps in a chair in her living room waiting for the dawn/first test of the atomic bomb. No fewer than 5 times, she leaps up out of her chair in apparent panic, each time waving her embarrassing, lunatic speeches out at the audience. Sensing her despair, the nameless dark-haired children calm her (sometimes rushing in from offstage), cover her in her Native American blanket, return her to her chair. Repeat. And ... repeat. At the same time, Kitty's nursemaid repeatedly rushes in and out of the living room to retrieve Kitty's tiny baby from its cradle. It wasn't crying. It just seemed like a good thing do, apparently: to hold the baby. Just as inexplicably, the nursemaid runs off again.

I have never seen so many opera singers running, perhaps they even mean to dash, though it's sometimes hard to gauge. Nonetheless, running, I gather, is perhaps the central theme of Dr. Atomic. Groups of dancers begin the madness by darting on and off stage right and left. Here is another operatic sine qua non: dancers! Dancers moving about in no outright contradiction to the opera, and yet ... well, why ask questions. Dancing is fun! Adding to the impression of ceaseless, frenetic movement, the same scenic objects (poles, mostly) are whisked up and down out of the rafters. This pole goes here. Oops! Gotcha! Now it's moving ... over here! And now ... HERE! Yay! It's all so zippy! And oh yes, lest I forget: all good Operas must have one utterly unstageable moment. Will Dr. Atomic turn into a fire-breathing dragon? Will he perhaps jump off of a cliff? Get in a fatal sword fight? Silly me, no! There's an atomic bomb to set off. How will they handle this one? (By facing the cast out to the audience, so that we see the bomb exploding not on stage, but reflected in the faces of the cast. Boo!!)

My main point continues to be that Sellars promised me the equivalent of Errol Morris's Fog of War on stage as an opera. It wouldn't be beyond the pale would it? So many films have managed to be art and political art at the same time--Hiroshima, mon amour, possibly my fav. Adorno, of course, thought that film was the logical extension of opera because opera promised effects it couldn't stage (hmm, atomic bombs exploding) whereas film of course can do precisely this. But come on. Surely this doesn't mean opera is incapable of staging anything of importance, does it? What about an opera about the atomic bomb where the dancers actually lay in heaps by the hundreds at the edge of the stage. What about an opera where we saw piles of hair, or shoes, or dead animals? I'm not trying to say that I never want to see a Mozart opera ever again, or that if I do, it has to stage political subtext (although that would be nice). I am saying, however, that if you promise political protest, you can't just hang a giant hairball (that looks like one of the mechanical fish that tear apart the good guys' ship at the end of The Matrix but is supposed to be a bomb) over the heads of the singers and expect ME to remember that the point of the opera is that this bomb killed a catastrophic number of people. You can't put a woman singing in tongues, or a cavalcade of vaguely exotic dark-haired people doing a rain dance, or a comic interlude where a commanding officer talks at length about his diet and expect ME to still remember that the point of this opera is LARGER.

There are two good moments in this opera. One is the John Donne Oppenheimer aria at the end of the first act. It is beautiful. It's so beautiful that John Adams is an idiot to go on composing music that doesn't sound exactly like this. If the entire opera were written in this vein, I would swear he was a genius. The same sound creeps in briefly in act 2: again, Oppenheimer sings alone. The act 1 aria isn't just good because of the music, however. Sellars instructs Oppenheimer to move stiltedly, in time to the music, with overt exaggeration. As the ostinato descends, stiltedly, Oppenheimer clasps and unclasps his hands, hugely, moving like a human puppet. He staggers forward, in direct correspondence to the musical line, which in contrast to the rest of the opera is incredibly repetitive, and strictly metered. Oh, for the return of simple devices like repetition and strict meter! Oh, Handel!!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!