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Countdown to Doctor Atomic

Albert Einstein and Robert OppenheimerAs we all knew he would, Alex Ross has written an excellent article for The New Yorker about the making of John Adams and Peter Sellars's new opera, Doctor Atomic. It includes conversations with Adams and especially with Sellars, who is not only directing the production but put together the text of the libretto after Alice Goodman withdrew. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this lengthy piece (a feature article in "Onward and Upward with the Arts," instead of at the back with "The Critics") has not been made available online. Sellars describes this new opera with the sentence "This is 'Götterdämmerung' for our generation":

"This whole night is about the atomic bomb," Sellars said, "and I want actually to begin with the most important words--that, at the end of the day, yes, it's wrong, and everyone knows it. Yes, it's wrong. When you say 'terrible,' terrible is"--Sellars paused--"terrible. Look at it in the eye."

"Terrible"? "Wrong"? As a New Yorker who thinks regularly about the possibility of a stray nuclear bomb wiping out not only my life but everything I love, I didn't doubt him for a moment. But I wondered whether the director was politically stacking the deck. He was, however, merely setting up one pole of the debate.
When I read about the article on Alex's blog, The Rest Is Noise, before the magazine arrived in my mailbox, I found this excellent post about Alex's trip to Los Alamos, the Trinity test site, and San Francisco, where the opera will receive its premiere this Saturday, complete with great photographs from Alex's digital camera. Sadly, that post has disappeared this evening, although I imagine that it will reappear after being altered for whatever reason. You may want to supplement Alex's work with a few other articles. Matthew Gurewitsch had an article (Setting the nuclear myth to music, September 27) for the New York Times and republished by the International Herald Tribune:
"To me, the Los Alamos story and the bomb in particular is the ultimate American myth," Adams said. "It constellates so many of the defining themes of our American consciousness: industry and invention leading to a 'triumph' of science over nature; the presumption of military dominance on behalf of what we perceive as the 'right' values; the newfound power to bring about annihilation of life; and the moral and ethical conundrums that the possession of such an instrument of destruction force upon us."
I also recommend the interview (Doctor Atomic to Premier in San Francisco, September 1) that John Adams gave to Mark Wilson for Physics Today earlier this month, the audience of which makes the interview rather interesting and different. There have been so many major cast changes in this production that I have lost count (actually, it's three, I think). Still, we are sad not to be in San Francisco this weekend.

See also Mark Swed's article (Peter Sellars: Explosively original, September 11) for the Los Angeles Times.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Speaking of MONEY, and what people will PAY for OPERA, as we all have been RANTING ON AND ON about for the past week or so, does anyone else think that SFO missed a HUMONGOUS opportunity to MAKE SOME MONEY by perhaps offering the premiere and/or the SFO run like as CABLE PPV or something?!!

Jeez, we can watch Klitschko vs. NoName on PPV for $5 or whatever, and I can see the Eagles (what was it) Final Tour #1 for free On Demand , but we can't see, FOR LOVE OR MONEY, this premiere? Or one of the first 20 performances?

I personally would pay the now mythical $25 for THAT!

Todd said...

Ouch. Great point. Perhaps a boxing opera is the only solution...with a libretto by Glen Frey. "Desperado...why don't you punch him out senseless..."

Charles T. Downey said...

Don't get me started about how PBS has failed us! *eye twitches menacingly*

My understanding is that there are legal issues, apparently with rights that apply to unions, that have made broadcast of operas and concerts more difficult.

Princess Alpenrose said...


They whine and complain that opera is losing its paying audience, but when there's a paying audience salivating for a new opera, there are legal issues?

Everyone wants us to pay through the nose for the same old La Boheme, but when we WANT to pay for something, we can't? How is this the free market system??

Can anyone explain to me, in 50 words or fewer, exactly what those legal issues are?

I swear, if someone offered me a bootleg video of the thing, I would watch it...

No wonder Indie is such a big thing these days.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Just now, I desperately e-mailed Alex Ross, to see if he can give us some insight into the costs and legal issues surrouding broadcast/ simulcast/ live feed/ PPV and what new vs. old operas cost to put on.

Hopefully, Alex can shed some light on this!

Garth Trinkl said...

Andrea, Opera News had a story on "Why PBS doesn't broadcast opera". I can't seem quickly to find the link, and you may already know about it ... There was, I recall, some quote from a PBS executive who said that it would have been less costly to make video cassettes of new operas and send them out to anyone who requested one. :) I'm generally for PPV; except that I don't have cable and I believe that new American opera should be treated as a public good available on PBS.

I for one -- and maybe Charles?? --think that PBS should be in the business of broadcasting the world premieres of all major new American operas, including John Harbison's "Great Gatsby" -- and not only John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" and Mark Adamo's "Little Women". (Just as New World Records should have been in the business of recording all new American operas -- with major NEA money if need be.) Now they are trying to tell us the Washington's Educational Television Association doesn't have a mission to include the arts in with its educational programming. (Cooking and home and car repair are of course justified.)

What is the Bravo cable channel's take on new opera?

Princess Alpenrose said...

Yeah, I'd generally agree with you Garth, except that the money has to come from somewhere! PBS means we have to fight with the federal government and the conservative right to get the funding ... which only means MORE delays and MORE cooks spoiling the (artistic) broth.

Seriously, this is not a big brother country. There is no "should" or "greater good". The free market rules here. So let it. New operas, classic performances etc can come out on cable or PPV, then be sold on DVD, then be aired "free" after that. Welcome to America.

I already challenged Bravo to pick up Doctor Atomic as a Reality Show, about 6 weeks ago. I plan on re-posting that (my) original post titled "Doctor Atomic at the Survivor Reality Show [Opera] House" on my blog tomorrow. I hope you read it and comment. I do honestly value your opinion!

I think it's about time we mobilize for a (yes cable) tv show, a la Food Network. It would take me about 1 hour to put together a very compelling line up of prospective shows ...

I'm totally serious!

Charles T. Downey said...

The only problem with your free market solution is that we are in that situation right now, and there is no opera on television. It is not profitable and it probably never will be. If we want it, and I certainly do, it will have to be publicly funded. However, as I ranted about last spring, it is not happening through PBS and NPR either, much to my annoyance.

This is why I would actually be happy if the Republicans zero out the CPB, because I think public broadcasting has completely failed us by pandering to mass culture instead of maintaining its most important role, serious cultural programming. If they were broadcasting opera premieres and major symphony concerts, believe me, I would be out in the street protesting on their behalf. I see nothing in their programming worth defending. Most of what they produce could certainly survive on a purely commercial basis.

Princess Alpenrose said...

oh, okay. bummer.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Alex Ross' article in the New Yorker is a MUST READ, folks. Get it at your newsstands ...

Princess Alpenrose said...


(Gotta go see/hear/experience it for myself...)