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Doctor Atomic

We at Ionarts would like to travel more to hear music around the world, but we cannot always go ourselves. Sometimes, we get reports from our friends. So, to follow up on Robert R. Reilly's review of Maskarade in London, we present this review of the biggest opera premiere of the season, John Adams's Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera. The author, Karren L. Alenier, is a poet and librettist, and she had the good fortune to be there for the big night on Saturday. Karren's first opera, Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, a collaboration with jazz composer William Banfield, was premiered in New York this past June. Her articles, including one this month called The State of New Opera, appear regularly in Scene4.

Doctor Atomic, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars, is awesome, as in inspiring substantial respect for its power, as in creating breath-stopping fear and dread. San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg commissioned and then premiered this seminal work on October 1, 2005.

The story of Doctor Atomic concerns the two weeks leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, a top-secret United States government project known as the Manhattan Project and led by the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. Most of the story takes place on July 15, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico at a test site Oppenheimer named Trinity. Peter Sellars created the libretto from U.S. government documents, letters, and poetry of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, the Bhagavad-Gita, and American Tewa Indians.

The music of Adams’s third opera is complex and dark without being strident. Bookending Adams's original compositions are selections of musique concrète, which Adams offers as a compilation of sounds from the modern world, that include running motors, pop music of the 1940s, and people communicating, including crying babies and Japanese speakers. The vibrations of the musique concrète permeated the San Francisco Opera house, providing a visceral component of this opera experience.

Other Reviews:

Anthony Tommasini, Countdown to the Eve of Destruction (New York Times, October 3)

Mark Swed, An explosive premiere (Los Angeles Times, October 3)

Joshua Kosman, Using a trinity of unconventional drama, haunting score and poetry, S.F. Opera confronts our age's most terrifying topic (San Francisco Chronicle, October 3)

Tim Page, 'Doctor Atomic': Unleashing Powerful Forces (Washington Post, October 3)

Justin Davidson, History's unholy Trinity (New York Newsday, October 3)

Lisa Hirsch, Going Nuclear: Doctor Atomic Arrives (Iron Tongue of Midnight, October 2)

Lisa Hirsch, Fallout (Iron Tongue of Midnight, October 3)

Cedric Westphal, SFist Goes to the Opera: Dr. Atomic (SFist, October 3)

Renaud Machart, L'essai non transformé de "Doctor Atomic" (Le Monde, October 3)

Renaud Machart, Les succès jalousés d'un musicien savant (Le Monde, October 3)
Predominantly in this new opera, Adams explores new musical territory such that Doctor Atomic does not sound anything like his operas Nixon in China or The Death of Klinghoffer. The closest Adams veers into that Philip Glass sound of lyric repetitions is in Oppenheimer’s aria based on the John Donne sonnet that begins “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” This is the physicist’s dark night of the soul, which baritone Gerald Finley delivers wrenchingly at the close of Act I.

One musical oddity is that none of the singers playing the top principal characters - Robert Oppenheimer, General Grove, Edward Teller, Kitty Oppenheimer - are tenors or soprano. Predominately, this is a story about powerful men much in the tradition of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. In fact, one scene where junior physicist Robert Wilson (played by tenor Thomas Glenn) climbs the launching tower for the bomb has clear echoes with Budd’s scene atop the ship’s rigging. Both Budd and Wilson speak to the issues of good versus evil. Interestingly Sellars, who also serves as the director of Doctor Atomic, has cast a relative newcomer in the role of the junior physicist. Glenn is a second-year Adler Fellow with the SFO Center. His singing is on the money but not as well supported for projection as one would hope.

Generally speaking, the cast carries the weight of this complex work well. Still, one expected more projection power from any soprano who plays Kitty Oppenheimer. Kristine Jepson in that role delivers the “Am I in your light” aria, based on Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, with insistent and seductive lyricism, but it was hard to distinguish the words without referring to the supertitles.

Choral numbers are impressively strong. Particularly memorable is the singing of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita: “At the sight of this, your shape stupendous/Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,/Terrible with fangs.” Choral numbers are also enhanced by the choreography of Lucinda Childs. The dance element is used to portray the emotional landscape. Childs who worked with Philip Glass and experimental director Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach is clearly a master of blending dance with large-scale staging such that it enhances a complex scenic view. For this reviewer’s tastes, the only place the dance did not work was when Oppenheimer’s Indian maid Pasqualita sings her lullaby with a dancer curled in a fetal position on the floor near the baby’s crib. The static position of the dancer seemed too literal in contrast to other dance activity that was more freewheeling.

Are there any problems with Doctor Atomic? Yes! The opening lines (“Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can be neither created or destroyed”) are dead wrong and fly in the face of Einstein’s theorem (E=mc2). John Adams was informed by a UC Berkeley professor of physics about this problem two weeks ago and tried to correct the problem but then gave up and said the change will have to come with the next production. Adams was scheduled to speak about his opera the day before and the evening of the opening, and one suspects he lost his voice to laryngitis because of the tremendous stress this problem added to the normal stresses of opening such a huge ambitious theatrical work.

As Pamela Rosenberg pointed out in a talk held on September 29 at the Berkeley Public Library (and in the shadow of the UC Berkeley Campus where Oppenheimer had his office), Doctor Atomic is not a documentary but an “acute” treatment of subject that goes to the emotional spaces. For this reviewer, the echoes of the current war in Iraq, terrorist assaults such as those on September 11, 2001, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where people of our nation were not helped adequately before and during those days of devastation, coexist with the story of Doctor Atomic. If we do not immediately identify with the people who were vaporized, maimed, and infected with cancers by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still cannot avoid the emotional load that Adams and Sellars drop on us in the music and texts of Doctor Atomic.

Karren L. Alenier
October 1, 2005


Anonymous said...

I went to the premiere. Flat out, the text is awful--I don't care if it was just Sellars doing a cut-and-paste job but, up in the balcony where I was sitting, people were giggling throughout the opera about some of the words. Not a good sign for an opera that is not a comedy.

I don't know if its Adams fault (i.e. he doesn't know how to set text) or Sellars torturous lines, but the text setting is awful throughout. Adams has said that he doesn't like or listen to opera and it shows. He really should have sat down with Britten's operas and studied them to see how English is set.

The music has some very interesting bits in it; he's using some non-Minimalist techniques these days. The problem is that by eschewing Modernism in the 70's, now that he's using those same Modernist techniques, the music sounds very dated in parts. The explosion of the bomb is pathetically done--listen to the storm scene in Reiman's Lear for a "what might have been". Still, it's better than the awful El Nino.

The staging is good but there's too many dancers just running around for no reason; also, Sellars--who should know better--has singers constantly walking to the back wall while singing, rendering them inaudibble. Thank Buddah for the subtitles, though given how awful Sellars text is, that's a mixed blessing.

And poor Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves! His big moment is an aria about....his diet and how tough resisting chocolate cake is. Everyone I talked to at the break and afterwards were embarrassed for him and wondering what the hell Adams and Sellars were thinking.

All in all, a disappointing night at the opera.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the very interesting comment. We welcome all views here, of course. Have any other readers seen the opera?

Princess Alpenrose said...

Thank you Henry! That is very interesting. I really respect that you saw it for yourself and made up your own mind. And thank you for giving astute, honest and *specific* reasons for your view.

I'll join the chorus; if anyone else has seen it, please post your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

I saw it! I put my comments on the r.m.c.c database. I would love to put them elsewhere, let me know if there are venues where they would be welcome...


Friday October 7th, 2005
San Francisco Opera production of Doctor Atomic
directed by Peter Sellars
music by John Adams
libretto by Sellars/Adams
War Memorial Opera House

Seeing as I like new music, am starting to enjoy opera a lot more than
before, and this is one of the most highly anticipated new works in
recent memory, I decided to head up to check out John Adams' new
opera Doctor Atomic. This opera focuses on the physical and moral
struggles faced by the Los Alamos community in the two weeks leading up
to the Trinity test of the atomic bomb. My ultimate review, sent to a
friend who inquired, was that this opera is strongly recommended if
you're inclined

There is a brief overture of noise, taped sounds, radio snippets, and
glitch in played in surround sound on speakers placed around the
audience. The curtain rises to the chorus singing about the physics of
the bomb. Most of action in first act focuses on big picture qualms
with building the bomb: warning the Japanese, ethics of war, the
necessity of the bomb now that Germany has surrendered. Teller, a
bass, is the first to begin singing, lamenting for his conscience. The
scientist Wilson, very effectively cast and costumed, reads a petition
to the president, is the main vehicle for protest as far as the opera
is concerned. The general frets about growing dissent among the
community. This is all interrupted by an odd but eventually convincing
love scene. When Robert Oppenheimer returns to bed and begins reading
over his notes from the day, Kitty tries to grab his attention and
sings an excellent aria ("Love, Am I in Your Light?"). Rebuffed,
she turns over to sleep, and then Robert sings a love song back.

Meanwhile, the weather is becoming a concern for the explosion of the
'Gadget'. A desert storm is approaching: this may delay the test.
Bright flashes of lightning flash the audience - I'm a bit
surprised there wasn't any warnings to the public about bright
flahses and seizures. There is a strange bit of comic relief offered
by the general talking about his diet. This small scene seemed
entirely out-of-place and useless, please speak up if you have ideas
why it was included.

The first act ends on a tremendous aria for Oppenheimer, "Battle my
Heart"... if you think Adams has no penchant for melody, you best
think again. In the end, this will remain the most singable of all his
works that I have heard, and very effectively evokes the moral
struggles faced by the main players in the opera. The tune droops,
sighs, and weeps. It also brings out the Faustian elements of the
play. Rosenberg had mentioned in her pre-concert talk that she had
commissioned this opera envisioning it to be the 'American Faust',
but I think Adams had mostly cast off this idea.

The second act builds tension from the very outset. The curtain rises
to reveal the bomb, six feet across, hovering over the baby
Oppenheimer's crib. This act is much more powerful, as the subject
matter deals more with individual concerns with the construction of the
bomb than grand societal concerns. Kitty has a set of very long and
extremeley demanding arias, beginning with "Easter Eve". The
Indian servant picks up the baby and sings a lush, chromatic, and
throaty lullaby. Chaos from the scientists interrupts briefly for more
discussion about the weather. Kitty sings another song, with even more
extreme jumps of range. The general comes out and is afraid that the
whole project will be a failure "a dud, a fizzle." Teller comes
out and is afraid that his calculations are incorrect and that the
entire atmosphere of the world will ignite. Wilson sings about the
nervousness and respect he has while working right next to the bomb.
All these individual concerns resonate more easily with the listener,
and your knuckles start to whiten as you expect these humans to explode
into madness under the conditions. Meanwhile, lightning is flashing
almost continually again.

But when the 10-minute-to-blast siren wails, the opera does start
deflate from the dizzying tension that had built up. There is
certainly excitement: more discussion of the weather, reprises of the
lullaby, several dancing interludes, a rain dance of sorts, some full
chorus action, some more overture-like collage of radio snippets and
cars and airplane noises in surround sound on the speakers. This all
takes far longer than the 10 minutes advertised in the libretto, and
unfortunately, there is no satisfactory resolvement of the tension,
almost an abandonment of it. There are two very short attempts at
duets that I wish had gone on much longer than a handful of words. The
chorus wraps things up as the bomb is set to explode by singing from
the Bhagavad Vita.

The libretto is a carefully constructed collage of poetry and
de-classified military documents. Does anyone know if Adams'
previous operas' librettos were written in the same manner, or were
they original material (by Alice Goodman?). The most effective parts,
and certainly the parts that inspired Adams to write his most lyrical
music, were the various poems. When Robert is singing to his wife
Kitty, he sings Baudelaire. When he sings to us at the end of the
first act, he sings Donne. Kitty sings Rukeyser to her husband.

The music itself is difficult to talk about. I think it is most
similar to his El Nino, and certainly bears very little resemblance to
his orchestral works of late (I am thinking of Naive and Sentimental
Music, My Father Knew Charles Ives, and the (icky) Transmigration of
Souls). Certainly the "Batter my Heart" aria and the choral
sections from the Bhagavad Vita will find the most life outside the
opera house, but I find myself continuing to remember Teller's arias
and especially remembering the desperation expressed in Kitty's
music. I was captivated by the overture/intermezzo tape collage music
that introduced each act, and also worked its way in the finale. Far
more interesting than his tape work in the Transmigration piece.

The set design was very minimal, although you wouldn't think it from
the budget. I read somewhere (New Yorker?) that the bomb cost $30,000
to make (and it didn't even explode...). I read another review that
interestingly commented that they couldn't wait to see a new
production, to see what new insights into the production could be made
from a different interpretation of the libretto and the music, and I
couldn't agree more.

Pamela Rosenberg gave the pre-concert talk, when Sellars got stuck in
bridge traffic. She comissioned the piece in 1999, which I believe is
when she was hired to direct the SFO (she leaves us after this season).

My friend was very affected by the performance. "Not this affected
since Khovanschina in New York in 1999," she said (and she returned
for a second time last night!). The audience reaction was lukewarm.
It wasn't a full house. Very long opera.

The principle singers were miked. Rosenberg had hinted in the
preconcert talk that Adams had intended it this way, and that all the
singers in his previous operas were miked. She also mentioned that
Adams wanted to process some of the voices... I listened very carefully
but couldn't hear any doodling of the voices. Did anyone who went
hear any tweaking? The miking did come in handy, particularly during
the first act love scene in the Oppenheimer's bed, when both Robert
and Kitty spend some time singing while fully wrapped in each other's

Anonymous said...

I went to Chicago to attend a performance of Doctor Atomic, the new opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, which was ending a recent run at Chicago Lyric Opera. I attended the performance on Jan. 19, 2008.

I became interested in the opera as a result of my recent Christmas trip to South Carolina. On my way back to Dallas from Greenville, I was heading through Tennessee on I-40, and decided to make at stop in Oak Ridge, TN, just outside Knoxville, to visit the Atomic Energy Museum there. I remember going to the museum many years ago with my friend, Sandy Rhodes, and enjoying it very much. The museum is indeed still there. Unfortunately, since then, it has basically morphed into a second rate kid’s science museum, but was still interesting enough. In any case, while I was there, in the bookstore, I bought a copy of the book American Prometheus, a new biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a nuclear physicist and the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project which lead to the development and explosion of the first Atom Bomb in 1945.

I started reading the book, and one thing lead to another, as happens in my life, and I started doing Google Searches on Oppenheimer. Lo and behold! I came across an opera, called Doctor Atomic by John Adams and Peter Sellars that was currently in a run of performances at Chicago Lyric Opera. Obviously, and rather casually, I though it might be fun to attend a performance, and checked out airfares on the internet. (I do stuff like that all the time.) OMG: $98 bucks round-trip from Dallas to Chicago on NWA. I checked for ticket availability for Doctor Atomic, got a great seat on the main floor, and immediately went back and bought the plane ticket before the fare went away. I would have been crazy not to go at that price!

So, on Martin Luther King Day weekend, I flew to Chicago for the opera.

Doctor Atomic was very good, but more intellectually stimulating than emotionally satisfying. The libretto was a bit wordy, as it was fashioned from government transcripts and recently released de-classified documents about the development of the atom bomb, but also from poetry by John Donne and Baudelaire, both of whom were favorites of Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. For example, Oppenheimer’s big aria, which closes the first act, "Batter my heart, three personed god," uses the text of a sonnet written by John Donne. Oppenheimer’s code name for the Trinity Site, where the Atom Bomb was first exploded, was taken from the ideas expressed in this poem. (Sandy and I once made a trip to Alamogordo, NM, to visit the Trinity Site.)

Oppenheimer was a polymath: he was an expert not only in science but in literature and languages, as well as music and art. He was also very active politically in left-wing politics during the 30’s, although it has never been conclusively established whether he had ever been an actual member of the Communist Party in the US during the Depression. In those days, many scientists and intellectuals, especially German Jews fleeing the Nazi’s, were attracted to Communism because of the desperate economic conditions in the both the US and Europe during the Depression, so being a member of the CP was not really that big a deal until the McCarthy Era in the early 50’s.

The opera, however, is not about that. Instead, it attempts to portray the emotional conflict Oppenheimer felt because of a bomb which he knew was necessary to win WW II and the ethical and moral implications of such a weapon after the war was over. It also attempts to establish a dialogue about the dangers of the Atomic Bomb for modern audiences, now that WW II is more than 50 years in the past.

I enjoyed Doctor Atomic very much, and found much of it quite engaging, although some of it went on a bit too long. I think, to be more effective, it could use some judicious pruning here and there, maybe 30 minutes out of the three hour total. Still, at the end, as the bomb explodes, it is quite riveting. As the bomb blast takes place, it is witnessed by the chorus and singers onstage facing the audience. As the blinding glare of the blast fades away, the stage is engulfed in total darkness. At that point, there was complete silence in the theater, and it took nearly a minute before someone decided it was really over and began to applaud. Of course, the dilemma for the audience at the end is, are you applauding the opera or the events on stage.

Canadian baritone Gerald Finley was excellent as Robert Oppenheimer. Gerald Finley currently owns the part of Robert Oppenheimer, having done it at the premier of the opera with San Francisco Opera in 2005, and then with Netherlands opera earlier in 2007 before bringing his interpretation to Lyric Opera this season. He is scheduled to perform it again at the Met in New York in 2008.

Finley has a beautiful, lyric baritone that might seem, at first hearing, to be too light to carry the weight of such a dramatic part. But in fact, Finley had plenty of sound to be heard over the sometimes exuberant orchestra, and in my seat in Row U on the main floor, was plenty loud. And the expressive quality of his voice made the angular lines that John Adams had written for Oppenheimer take on a linear quality that seemed effortless. Gerald Finley is the best baritone, perhaps one of the best singers I have heard in a long time.

Here is a sample of Gerald Finley singing Batter My Heart, from the end of Act One of Doctor Atomic, from a Lyric Opera promo video.

The other singer that made an impression on me simply as a singer was contralto Meredith Arwady, who sang the role of Pasqualita, Kitty Oppenheimer’s Indian Nurse. Miss Arwady has a darkly luscious voice with a strong bottom that oozes out over the orchestra. She is a large woman, and was completely convincing as a Navajo Indian.

The rest of the cast was very strong both dramatically and vocally. I was impressed especially that a modern opera such as this one could sound so lyrical in spots. And all the singers seemed completely comfortable with their music, and never seemed to feel the need to shout to be heard in the large theater.

While I think that the opera can be improved, I am quite satisfied that I was able to see it in its original form. Perhaps if we are lucky, the Met, which is planning a new production next season, will broadcast it as part of the HDTV series in movie theaters. I would certainly like to hear the music again, as one hearing of an opera is never enough to make a reliable opinion.

I was also impressed that the performance was completely sold out. Not only did everyone come to the performance, on the coldest night of the year, but they stayed to the end. Even more impressive was the fact that, for Peter Sellar’s pre-curtain lecture at 6:30, the main floor of the theatre, and it is a large theater, was completely full. This show was a hit in Chicago.

Ed Flaspoehler, Dallas, TX
eflaspo at

David Adams said...

I saw this opera in at its premier in SF. First off, I am a big John Adams fan and I love "Nixon In China."

However, I thought that "Doctor Atomic" was incredibly tedious and about 1 hour too long; the entire second act should be cut. I was actually thinking of jumping off the balcony, taking my life, during the last act.

Anonymous said...

I saw the HD Opera yesterday. I have enjoyed John Adams' music in the concert hall and was looking forward to this but I was disappointed by the vocal music, annoyed by the muddled lyrics (especially in the ?love scene), bored by the final scene because it took too long, found the General and his diet to be ridiculous, and did not like the screen of windows or whatever they are in the background. Liked the
orchestral music and the performers did what they could with what they were given. Found the id badges inconsistent -- a guy with hair had the id badge of a bald man -- and they glasses used against the glare of the blast looked in a couple of cases like snorkel masks.

Allches said...

I Saw the HD Presentation from the met. I did not like this opera. The idea to write an opera about this subject is great but, the music was horrible. The music is so predictable that when some line is sung you will be able to know what the next note will be. Gerald Finley is a great singer/Actor and also the lady playing his wife. This opera should have been called "Dr. Cigarette" could some one please tell me what's up with all the smoking? I left the theatre when in the second act Oppenheimer's wife is singing something really boring that even she falls asleep on the bed while smoking then some army guys are singing something about the weather. Then Mrs. Oppenheimer gets up and to my surprise she still has the same cigarette between her fingers and keeps smoking. This was the point when I wanted to scream "enough". I just couldn't sustain my self to that seat and just left. I left the theatre thinking that I should have stayed home and listen to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo which is a Masterpiece. I just learned that Mr. Adams doesn't like to listen to opera. I think he should start. How could someone that composes opera doesn't listen to opera? Is like saying a Doctor doesn't need of other Doctors. I don't understand.

Anonymous said...

I watched the DVD special edition and have to say that I was overall very disappointed. The subject idea was great, the execution excellently performed, but the overall text and music was pretty terrible.

The scores were *entirely* too wordy. As someone who knows the science, I felt it had been sprinkled full of technological words that I don't think the authors understood. How? There was too much overly dramatic scoring on parts of conversations that didn't matter and none on the ones that should have. Singing about icosahedral arrangement of detonators was nearly comical in an opera that's supposed to explore the emotional space of these events.

The disjointed telling doesn't help most of the time. It felt like someone found a pile of letters and anecdotes from the events, mixed them around and just read them out loud. Some are given too much emphasis, while others not enough. Deeply scientific topics nearly in the same sentence as moral and personal ones. Huge scenes are spent on what was relatively minor historial points, while not enough was spent on some of the truly groundbreaking. The huge scene about the weather was a great example of what should not have gone on so long. Terribly confusing what the points were at times.

Instead, it would have been great to tell the *themes* together with more clear direction between them. There was a whole line of scientific work being done (can we do it) and a very separate, and parallel line of the morality (should we do it) and political/military attempts to make those choices. A much better telling would be to show the problems as they were encountered and overcome interspersed with the moral questions as they came up. Instead, we have mixes of all themes together and makes it nearly impossible to empathize with the struggles of the characters. Honestly, it feels like they didn't even TALK to anyone that knew what was going on and just sort of arrogantly tried to write this without trying to understand.

The choreography was excellently performed, but too distracting. There were far too many people dancing and moving around in the background that did more to distract from the story than add to it as many weren't do anything but looking around. Again, long stretch are spent on scenes that should be cut to just a few moments, and vice-versa. It's just another sign to me the authors didn't fully understand their subject matter.

I do not recommend someone go to this if they wish to understand the scientific, moral, or emotional impact of these events. Picking up a good book on the subject would give you a better understanding. I studied this quite a lot, and even I found it confusing to follow.