On “Dr Atomic”

Oppenheimer's security pass

Conservatives aren’t the obvious audience for major compositions by John Adams, especially those where director Peter Sellars is also involved.

The irritants here are self-evident. Adams’ three major operas — Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Dr Atomic (2005) — take as their various points of departure the recent historical past, still very much the stuff of raw emotion and visceral personal politics, while Adams’ public pronouncements tend to radiate centre-left certitudes as unsubtly self-congratulatory as they are orthodox, if sometimes a little bizarre. Adams is convinced, for instance, that he’s on a ‘blacklist’ — this, on the basis that he has to show ID when checking in at airports! Let’s not disillusion him, shall we? Meanwhile it is difficult to see how a life predicated solely on attempting to do, at any given moment, the very thing calculated most thoroughly to annoy The New Criterion would have differed in most significant particulars from Sellars’ career, that long-running attempt epater une bourgeoisie still puzzlingly more keen on paying out yet more cultural subsidy for Sellars’ slightly predictable affronts than actually fighting back.

How odd, then, that Dr Atomic at the English National Opera last Friday — composed by Adams, libretto by Sellars — should, for all its ideological flaws, prove to be such an exhilarating experience.

Dr Atomic is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico in June, 1945, in the hours before the test-firing of the first atomic bomb — the test is code-named ‘Trinity’. The two-act opera takes as its central characters the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and the other physicists, military personnel and support staff involved with the project. The ENO version — a co-production with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera — was the new one by Penny Woolcock, who also directed the 2003 film version of The Death of Klinghoffer, not Sellars’ own production, which I know only through a DVD of its Dutch performance.

Change comes to Dr Atomic
Ms Woolcock’s politics may be discerned, by anyone who’s keeping track of that sort of thing, from this contribution to the Guardian. And before I go any further, I should perhaps emphasise the absolute unfairness of comparing the filmed version of a fully-staged opera with an actual live performance.

On film, operatic ‘acting’ is virtually always clunkingly over-emphatic, even embarrassing; it’s always hard to see how the staging works; violence is invariably done to the relationship between the principal singers as well as their relationship with the chorus. Most damningly — but perhaps most inevitably, too — it’s in live performances alone that one encounters the sort of operatic charisma that never really translates onto the television screen, that shiver through the spine when one realises that those unearthly sounds really are being made by human being, flawed and ordinary, standing a mere twenty feet away. Films of opera, failing to surprise in this manner, operate under considerable disadvantages. I’m glad they exist all the same.

Unfair or not, though, it’s hard not to conclude that Ms Woolcock’s production is a vast improvement on Sellars’ version.

The sets, admittedly, are broadly similar. There’s the same emphasis on the looming menace of the bomb its makers called ‘Fat Man’, the same sparse lunar greyness cheered only slightly by jaunty 1940s fashion. Ms Woolcock’s chief innovation here is to be found in the moving walls of cubicles in which scientists, technicians and support staff labour, lounge or occasionally cower; at other points the cubicles are peopled by Tewa Indians, who occasionally interrupt their drudgery in order to don ritual masks and dance to keep the cosmos intact. At other points the shade over each cubicle is drawn down and films are projected onto them. When the film stops, those pale blank surfaces read like a Japanese paper screen.

Fisson for the nuclear family
Yet it’s principally in the staging where Ms Woolcock’s production makes important changes to Dr Atomic — not just in the way the opera looks, but how it works, too. In Act II, scenes 1 and 2, for instance, the action is effectively split between two rival centres. On one side, women cope in various ways with the near-unbearable tension of the much-delayed test firing. Kitty Oppenheimer spends the evening drinking rather more than present-day American opinion deems advisable, driving her to quote at length from a 1945 poem by the famously feminist, bisexual, left-of-centre anti-Vietnam War activist Muriel Rukeyser. Her best lines are these: “Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace, not lack of war, but fierce continual flame”. Meanwhile Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers’ Tewa maid — succumbing here to some bracingly old-fashioned ethnic stereotyping — turns out to be a visionary earth-mother. She cuddles the Oppenheimers’ infant — a sound sleeper, apparently — crooning a lullaby evocatively titled ‘The Cloud Flower Song’, which I suppose is at least marginally more subtle than ‘The Mushroom Cloud Song’ would have been.

The menfolk, for their part, are passing the time with a mixture of pragmatism, bravado and borderline hysteria. A young physicist called Robert Wilson, previously full of high-profile moral qualms about the project, is now slightly giddy with nervous excitement. Laid-back Edward Teller, who’d rather leave the politics to Oppenheimer, is sardonic, occasionally bleakly funny. General Leslie Groves, portrayed as science-hating idiot in Act I, and seen here dreaming of sacking disloyal physicists — not a bad idea, incidentally, given how much information the Soviets managed to garner from the Trinity test — is nevertheless allowed to articulate what is, in the context of the opera’s implicit politics, the significant claim that the test must go ahead, no matter what the weather or the danger, for the simple reason that President Truman, at Potsdam, needs to impress Churchill and Stalin. Oppenheimer, so central in other scenes, does little here other than keeping the others on track, at least until the last few moments, when he effectively starts the countdown.

Scenes 1 and 2 are important. The various responses of the characters matter — their reactions need to be distinct, strong and full of impact — because the function of these in slightly disorganised, nervously anticipatory scenes is, I think, on one hand to show how personal and public motivations collide and combine in order to produce the big events we think of as ‘history’, while on the other hand, to demonstrate the subtle damage wreaked by the project itself on at least some of its creators.

Splitting the difference
Yet Sellars and Woolcock handle these scenes very differently. In Sellars’ version, the action takes place largely in the Oppenheimers’ living room, culminating in a memorably bizarre moment when Robert Wilson is ranting, Kitty sprawls semi-passed out in a chair, and a miscellaneous group of physicists and military staff look on impassively while five, count them, five Tewa maids stand around in various states of trance. That can’t be right, can it? There are other absurdities in Sellars’ staging — Kitty’s ‘Am I in your light?’ aria in Act I scene 2 is considerably funnier than was probably intended — but it’s at this point that the sheer dysfunctionality of the Oppenheimers’ domestic arrangements officially becomes a distraction of such magnitude that even the birthpangs of the atomic age come to seem rather ordinary by comparison. Please, don’t try this one at home, kids.

Woolcock, in contrast, makes a very human sort of sense of the same scenario. She divides the stage in half. On the left, in a sketched-out bedroom, the women do their thing. On the right, where the bomb is being winched precariously into position, the men do theirs. Thus it is that we have, for example, a moment where poor young Wilson, rather than delivering a pointless monologue to an audience of strung-out domestic staff, is seen standing up on a raised platform in the midst of a thunderstorm, positively intoxicated with the danger of his situation — “this weather is something you really don’t like to be around with a bomb nearby” — before standing there just a little longer to remind the crowd of technicians below how dangerous this is, and to tell them about a dream, until he’s lured back down. His intoxication becomes a foil for Kitty’s, just as Pasqualita’s apprehension of higher realities, laconic yet matter-of-fact, is a foil for Groves’ high politics. And so on, and so forth. Woolcock’s staging encourages such comparison, where Sellars’ is rather more likely to foster housewifely schadenfreude.

It’s not just that there’s a counterpoint being played out between different types of engagement and disengagement, pragmatism and visionary mysticism here, different strategies of imagining the hitherto unimaginable, although that’s part of what Woolcock’s staging delivers. There’s also what it does to the music. Because the men and women aren’t sharing an identical space, their interwoven commentary comes to read as something rich, layered and meaningful — alternatives by no means mutually exclusive — rather than, well, just a lot of mad people talking past each other. And it also means that by the end of Act II, scene 3, where the voices all join for a hard-driving chorus drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the opera’s two hum-on-the-way-home tunes — “At the sight of this, your shape stupendous, full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies” — there’s a real sense of disparate, highly individual sensibilities suddenly converging, in the face of this more-than-human force, into raw supernatural awe. It’s a powerful moment, won in large part by Woolcock’s staging.

Oppie talk
Both the Sellars and Woolcock productions benefit enormously from the presence of bass-baritone Gerald Finley in the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer — a role which he created.

To cast Finley as tall, slim, rather glamorous and, by all accounts, thoroughly seductive ‘Oppie’ is, to some extent, casting against type. Finley, for all his qualities, is certainly not tall, while the boxy 1940s fashions into which this opera precipitates him in any event emphasise neither height or grace. His distinctive features mean that he often looks more than slightly surprised at what’s taking place around him. Yet once he gets to work on Adams’ more serious pieces of writing — in a score that is as ambitious as it is predictably eclectic — none of these details matter. Most of the time, Finley’s range, depth and volume appear effortless, allowing him to take on even Adams’ most expressive passages with confident intensity.

Adams does himself few favours, in interviews, by drawing comparisons between his own compositions and those of J.S. Bach — Adams is good, but no one alive is quite that good. Finley, on the other hand, has also engaged with J.S. Bach, most recently, I think, in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s magnificent recording of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (2007), and there are instances where some faint aura of Bach’s sacred cantatas seems to adhere, a sort of luminous gravity, even when Finley is singing something infinitely inferior.

The net result of all of this, in turn, is that when Dr Atomic‘s moment of manifest greatness arrives — in Adams’ setting of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, “Batter my heart, three-personn’d God”, which surely will continue to be performed and admired long after everything else in this opera is more or less forgotten — Finley contributes as much to the terrible, anguished seriousness as Adams does. Something astonishing happened when Finley sang this at the ENO last Friday. No, really! It’s not just that the words, for once, deliver the various things that Adams seems to want us to feel about Oppenheimer — something intelligent, sexy, spiritual, proud and hideously morally conflicted all at once — it’s the way in which Finley’s voice ensures that Donne’s poem, each individual word of that prayer, strikes home.

First kisses, car crashes and set-piece historical catastrophes apart, it’s quite a rare thing to find oneself thinking, in a particular moment, ‘here’s something I’m going to remember as long as I live’ — but as the curtain came down on Finley’s performance at the end of Act 1, amid applause that left my ears ringing long into the interval, that was what went through my mind. This is the sort of thing that reminds one what live opera can, at its best, do. It’s the sort of thing that justifies what in other contexts appear to be the manifold inconveniences and annoyances of opera as a medium: its artificiality, frequent patent silliness, high ticket-prices and froth of critical self-congratulation, most of all its aspirations to high cultural significance, perhaps even moral importance. All of which raises another sort of question regarding Dr Atomic.

Going critical
What, ultimately, is Dr Atomic ‘about’? It’s about a culturally sophisticated left-of-centre physicist later mildly pestered by McCarthyism, obviously. And it’s about the Manhattan Project itself, only slightly less obviously. Finally, in the programme notes for the ENO production, Adams himself claims that Dr Atomic has affinities with the story of Dr Faustus, because although Oppenheimer ‘had many left-wing friends’ and ‘had dabbled moderately in Socialist causes during the 1930s’, ‘for Oppenheimer to sign on to be the principal player in the army’s most secret weapons programme has some aspects of a Faustian bargain’.

Well, as the stars move still, time runs, and the clock will strike — at which point, I really do need to get on with the housework — the reader will have to pick his or her own way through the richness of Adams’ historical naïveté regarding, apparently, everything from Oppenheimer’s politics (even Oppenheimer himself admitted he was a Communist Party fellow traveller, for heaven’s sake — although as Adams doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with 1930s Soviet Communism, it’s surprising he’s being so coy here) to the attitudes of left-wing American intellectuals towards the Allied war effort from June 1941 onwards, about which he seems rather confused. Perhaps someone could loan him a few Woody Guthrie LPs or something?

Yet though time is short, it’s worth digging slightly deeper into this messy business of meaning. Adams’ earlier operas — Nixon, Klinghoffer — were preoccupied with the disparate human needs, desires and interests informing even the most apparently black-and-white historical events. And, as mentioned above, I think that’s part of the point of Dr Atomic, although also what separates Dr Atomic from Adams’ earlier operas.

A soft-spot for complication, to put it no more damningly that that, has got Adams into trouble before now. Many critics, for instance, including some very wise ones, couldn’t stomach the fact that in Klinghoffer, the terrorist Mamoud was expected to deliver a dreamy aria about birds, set to an ethereal, string-driven melody, alongside this sort of uncompromising dictum: “The day that my enemy and I sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace — that day our hope dies, and I shall die, too.” Meanwhile Mao is portrayed as a totalitarian monster, but also as a poet with a sense of humour. In an Adams opera, even the most casual moral decision may end up freighted with consequences for other human lives, not all of which are very thoroughly explored within the scope of the performance.

Further, the characters in these operas sometimes get on surprisingly well with each other, even when what we know of them insists they they shouldn’t — witness that distressing, almost unbearable scene at the end of Klinghoffer, where Marilyn Klinghoffer, all but spitting with fury, rebukes the Captain for what seems to her, all too clearly, a degree of sympathy with the men who slaughtered her disabled, decent, law-abiding husband. And of course she’s right, but everything about the structure of Klinghoffer invites us to empathise more with the Captain — his confusion, his complicity — than with the widow. Even the title (pointedly, it’s The Death of Klinghoffer, not The Murder of Klinghoffer) strives to avoid making judgements — all of these choices which, whether Adams likes it or not, in themselves constitute a moral stance.

Clearly, in that sense, Adams’ critics have a point. His operas can come across as ostentatiously ‘even handed’ when it comes to matters of right and wrong — ‘blithely lazy’ might be another way to put it — in the way that post-modern art so often does. In Klinghoffer, there’s a point at which being fair to Palestinian grievances probably does in fact shade into seeking to excuse the frankly inexcusable. If I seem less troubled by this than do some critics — for instance, if I don’t fully share the conclusions that Richard Taruskin, whose Text and Act is one of my favourite books about early music, reaches here, in an article well worth reading if only in order to work out why, exactly, one disagrees with it — it’s only because I simply don’t think that anyone should look to art, qua art, for moral guidance. That’s what religion is for — or, for those that way inclined, what secularists might seek to locate in religion’s semi-denatured cultural derivatives. Art, ultimately, reflects the moral condition of those who create it. And while art may reflect repulsive amorality, or even something worse — well, it’s perfectly possible for those who encounter such art to to judge the art, and its makers, accordingly.

We needn’t look far to find an example of this. Taruskin, after all, has apparently been able to listen to Klinghoffer without concluding that slaughtering grandfathers in wheelchairs constitutes a valid means of achieving political ends. Conversely, many thousands of sensitive persons have managed to sit through J.S. Bach’s rather more effective Matthäuspassion without deciding to turn to Christ. Tell me, did Taruskin have to tie himself to the mast as he listened to Mamoud’s words and their setting, lest the siren song lure him onto the rocks — or did he simply bring to Klinghoffer whatever moral steadiness he’d acquired in the course of a life full of reflection and experience? And if the latter, why not trust the rest of the opera-going public to do the same?

The communication of the dead
All of which may seem casually off topic, although it goes some way towards addressing the main reason why conservatives often draw breath at the mere whisper of Adams’ name. Back, however, to the more immediate point here. If cluttering the libretto with inconveniently jarring facts or sympathetic fantasy sometimes seems a rhetorical screen for moral vacancy, if not actually some sly argument for moral equivalence — well, at least there was no shortage of incident, detail and colour, the too-human stuff on which present-opera thrives.

How curious, then, that in the libretto for Dr Atomic, Adams allowed Sellars to present such a weirdly limited vision of the actual historical characters who populated that famous New Mexico mesa encampment. Sellars’ libretto for Dr Atomic is based on ‘documented material’ (Adams’ phrase) gathered by Adams, Sellars and Alice Goodman, who wrote the librettos for Nixon and Klinghoffer, and who worked on the Dr Atomic project for a year before quitting over creative differences. Goodman, an American raised in the Reformed Jewish tradition, was ordained in the Church of England in 2001, taking up the post of chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge in 2006. As she’s reportedly working with Sellars on a version of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the difference presumably lies between Adams and Goodman, not elsewhere.

The material out of which Dr Atomic has been fashioned includes diaries, reminiscences, memoirs, but also poetry and religious texts — various Muriel Rukeyser poems, songs of the Tewa, prose poems by Baudelaire, Christopher Isherwood’s translations of Bhagavad Gita. The charm of this arrangement is that it blesses the libretto with the aura of authenticity — a concept which ought at this point to be distinguished, in no uncertain terms, from veracity. The defects lie, variously, in the evils of selective quotation, verbal unwieldiness, manifest historical irrelevance and — worst of all in the context of opera — artistic lameness.

Selective quotation, for instance, allows Sellars to portray General Groves as a buffoon, faintly pathetic and more than slightly stupid. Groves is seen to have little sympathy with scientists, to have problems with eating too many brownies, even to wish to control the elements, Canute-fashion, in order to allow the testing to go forward. Quite possibly, a crude point is being made here about the US military establishment, the supposedly stupid rapacity of its present-day overseas entanglements, its obliviousness to realities it cannot change.

Well, on the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that, any disagreements with the content of that message notwithstanding. Attempting to make crude points about the present is one of the most hackneyed conventions of history-as-entertainment. Elsewhere, Oppie is given a line to the extent that policy should be left to the ‘best men in Washington’ who have ‘information that we do not possess’. If the surtitles had included a flashing message reminding us of the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ fiasco we should hardly have been surprised.

What is lost in this portrayal of Groves, though, is something of the complexity of the actual historical events. In reality, Groves was indeed energetic, tough and intent on getting his own way. But he was also far more aware of the science behind the project than one might ever guess from this opera, as well as far better placed to make decisions about the start of the testing than the opera implies. It’s true that he argued in favour of selecting Kyoto as the first target for the atomic bomb. But it’s also true — although again, one would never guess it from this opera — that Groves lobbied hard to put Oppenheimer — a highly intellectual, Communist-supporting, ideologically unpredictable Jewish American — in charge of the high-security, high-stakes Manhattan Project, and then lobbied harder still to allow Oppenheimer to assemble the very international, polyglot, in some ways hugely unwieldy team he wanted in order to carry out the Project’s aims.

To make this explicit, however, might show something about the possibilities of imaginative pragmatism, tolerance and bravery within the US Army not wholly to Adams’ and Sellars’ taste. Clearly, some paradoxes are more acceptable than others. Perhaps I ought to stress again that the problem here isn’t one of historical fidelity, so much as it’s one of Sellars’ failure to make the libretto as interesting as it should have been. In any event, both in the Dutch performance of Dr Atomic and in the Met/ENO production, the performers singing the role, Eric Owens and Jonathan Veira respectively, were able to inject considerable charm and humour into the three-star stuffed-shirt proposed by the libretto and, to some extent, the score.

Matter altered in form
At least some of the words attributed to Groves are his own, albeit culled from a memoir written almost 20 years after the fact. What of the really central characters, Oppie and Kitty?

Strikingly, both of them sing mostly in someone else’s words — Kitty, as far as I can see, entirely so. Of course, Oppie was famously well-read, in half a dozen languages including Sanskrit, and was apparently perfectly capable of quoting poetry at the least provocation, while Kitty was considerably more intelligent and well-read than anything else in the opera makes obvious, of which more in a moment. The point is that the poems and religious texts do have some linkage to the people giving them voice. They weren’t just chosen at random. And sometimes, as with the Donne sonnet mentioned above, they work very well.

But all the same, their cumulative effect is surely to simplify and flatten Oppie and Kitty — to load them with all the glittering prizes that a certain strand of left-liberal, middlebrow taste accords to easy high-cultural literacy, while simultaneously stripping them of their individual histories and ingrown personal paradoxes. For instance, would you know from the libretto that Oppie was a genuinely brilliant physicist rather than just an academic politician, that he loved riding and sailing, or that his actually quite interesting longtime mistress Jean Tatlock, a depressive member of the Communist Party who probably introduced Oppie to the work of John Donne, committed suicide in January 1944, a mere six months after a meeting where Oppie stayed the night with her but apparently rejected her plea that they continue their relationship? And would you know that Kitty, for her part, had been married three times before she married Oppie in 1940, or that one of her husbands had organised Pennsylvania coal miners before getting himself killed in the Spanish Civil War, or that she herself was that resonant thing, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party? Would you realise from the conversations between Oppie and Edward Teller that Teller would later go on to testify against Oppie in 1954 in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities?

Oddly, there’s a hint of that last point in the tone of some of Teller’s exchanges with Oppie, but unless you happen to have had a childhood fascination with Oppenheimer, as I did — the ecclecticism of my childhood pantheon surprises even me, occasionally, although for those who don’t fully realise what goes into creating the consciousness of a conservative, it’s worth noting that the scope of my infant enthusiasms found room for John Reed as well as, God help us, Woodrow Wilson — the implication is so subtle as to be undetectable. Richness is seeping away here, replaced instead by great or sometimes indifferent poetry, or the bad prose of seriously ex-post-facto recollections.

And yet this is an opera which presumes so much on intimacy that it literally asks us to climb into bed with Oppie and Kitty. Act I, scene 2 finds the couple physically close, but otherwise sadly distant. Oppie is working his way through some papers, at which point Kitty sets forth on an aria: ‘Am I in your light?’ The sad truth is, of course, that Kitty isn’t making any impact on Oppie whatsoever, so engrossed is he in the detail of the Trinity test.

In the Sellers version of this scene — and one has to assume that it’s a problem with the production, as Kristine Jepson has a very pretty voice — Kitty comes across as deranged, pure and simple. Trying to seduce her uninterested husband, she’s clingy, wild-eyed, annoying. There’s little sense of the woman Kitty Oppenheimer seems to have been. In the Woolcock production as performed at the ENO, in contrast, Kitty is sung by the relatively obscure Sasha Cooke, who is surely one of the great discoveries of the moment. Her Kitty is, at least, warm, sexy, more self-assured and considerably less mad.

Still, though, for all the beauty of her voice and the purely musical power of the duet she sings with Gerald Finley, the words they sing are more conducive to hilarity than anything else. Once Kitty manages to distract Oppie from his calculations, what she gets isn’t intimacy, but rather a lot of prose-poetry cribbed from Baudelaire. Sensual? Revelatory? No, just a bit curious, really:

In the ocean of your hair I am shown brief visions of a port resounding with melancholy songs, of vigorous men of all nations and ships of all shapes outlining their fine and complicated architectures against an immense sky where eternal heat languidly quivers …

Well, if someone said this about my hair, which for the record no one ever has — because that ‘vigorous men of all nations’ thing doesn’t sound good at all, does it? — I’d review my personal hygiene with a degree of urgency.

More to the point, though, once again, the problem isn’t so much that this isn’t good history — opera is, after all, as limited in what it can say about history as it is in what it can teach about morality — than the fact that the all-out literary evasiveness on show here is simply neither as revealing nor as poignant as it might be. Once again, an opportunity has been lost.

Neither created nor destroyed
Nor is that the only lost opportunity. There’s an argument to be made in favour of all these ‘found’ libretto items, of course — the poetry in particular. Not least, poems and religious texts have the benefit of having been composed with some attention to how they sound, which is more than one can say for much of the entirely workman-like prose set elsewhere in the opera.

Just to pick the first example that comes to mind — but it’s significant, I guess, that it does stick in my mind, that I can still hear the relevant music a week later — there’s a line in the Donne poem that runs ‘I, like a usurp’d town, to another due / Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.’ Adams give emphasis to the ‘mit’ in that ‘admit’ with a rising note before the melody falls again. The effect suggests, somehow, the speaker’s effort to open his soul to God, but also its ineffectual quality. It’s a small point, but it shows how music and careful writing can join together to express something more memorably than mere prose alone could easily do.

Compare this, then, with a passage like the following:

We surround the plutonium core
from thirty two points
spaced equally around its surface,
the thirty-two points
are the centers of the
twenty triangular faces
of an icosahedron
interwoven with the
twelve pentagonal faces
of a dodecahedron.

I can remember scarcely anything about the limping, aimless semi-recitive to which these word were set, other than my own reaction as I listened, running something roughly like this: ‘Gosh, it must be awfully hard to set prose in a way that makes it sound anything other than clunky and awkward’, which was perhaps not the effect at which Adams was aiming.

Of course there are problems even with ‘Batter my heart’. From whence does this soul-searching of Oppenheimer’s spring, given the manifest lack of doubt he’s demonstrated earlier in the libretto? An how, precisely, are we to connect this extremely protestant prayer with the sort of salvation Oppenheimer sought? Sellars, I expect, assumes that we’ll assume what he does, which is that Oppenheimer somehow knows he’s doing something wrong, and wishes to be saved from it. Alternate readings, of course, are possible, if perhaps unexpected by Sellars et al.

Elsewhere in the opera, meanwhile, there are points where one gets the impression that Adams wasn’t trying very hard to make the music fit the words, as in fact he more or less admits here, in an interview genuinely full of insight for anyone who wants to know how the words and music in Adams’ longer works relate to one another:

It’s hard to set English – especially just plain flat-out prose like “He said that I should go over and tell that to Oppenheimer” or something like that. I notice when I’m composing that I can get distracted and lose track of the necessity to make good vocal lines.

Indeed. The question, then, is why Adams and Sellars opted to struggle on against the undigested prose, rather than shaping its meaning into poetry — graceful language bending to meet the score halfway — as Goodman was able to do in Nixon and Klinghoffer.

The answer, almost certainly, lies in Goodman’s departure from the project. In its earlier stages, the opera was apparently intended to be rather more ambitious in chronological scope, including those later hearings where Teller spoke out against his erstwhile colleague. Would that have made a better opera out of Dr Atomic? Almost certainly so. The orchestra of the ENO played with inspiration, energy and real charisma last Friday, but even at their best they were unable to rise to a climax worthy of the best moments elsewhere in Dr Atomic — not through any fault of theirs, either, but through Adams’ decision to end the opera at the moment the bomb is detonated, because there’s simply no way, no matter how much high-volume canned screaming and gaudy orchestral effects one brings to bear on it, that a staged performance can do justice to the detonation of an atomic bomb. What follows — the voice of a Japanese woman asking for water — is emotive, but ultimately rather cheap and empty, in dramatic as well as moral terms. Yes, war brings suffering, but one instance of individual suffering is nothing new in the history of human civilisation, and surely nothing necessarily to do with a Faustean desire to push through the wall of human capability into superhuman spheres.

No, the more high-impact end of practical physics simply doesn’t deliver on stage the way a personal, comprehensible, human-scale moral dilemma would. The mechanics of friendship and betrayal are, after all, real to most of in the way that particle physics is not. Is it wrong, then, to assume that Alice Goodman would have realised this, and that her Dr Atomic might have had another, more effective and forceful shape? Alas, we shall never know. In any event, there are multiple moments in Dr Atomic when the absence of Goodman’s writing is all but tangible — when the rhetorical emphasis turns up at the wrong end of an awkward, unlovely phrase, for instance, or where the orchestration seeks to soar but is weighed down by the words it carries, or where a moment ripe for psychological revelation simply slides past on the back of some lumberingly obvious agit-prop.

This isn’t a political point, incidentally, not least because I’ve no reason for assuming that Goodman’s politics differ in any significant regard from those of Adams, Sellars or Woolcock. Rather, the narrative of Dr Atomic just doesn’t spark the way that Klinghoffer or even Nixon does. Klinghoffer, actually, might offer marginally too much tension — it’s in some ways an embarrassing admission, but when I listen to Klinghoffer on my iPod, sitting on some bus surrounded by incurious sleepy commuters, I always jumble the order of the songs, if only because otherwise it’s rather too hard to bear. Nixon is easier, but at least there isn’t the promise of a big-bang conclusion that never quite arrives.

Ultimately, that sense of failed promise lies at the root of what’s wrong, for all Adams’ achievement, with Dr Atomic, an opera that surely includes some of the most sparklingly allusive, bright and enlivening music Adams has ever written. If my words ring unduly critical here, it’s because an opera that I very genuinely enjoyed, and to which I’ll doubtless listen with real engagement for many years to come, might well have been better, perhaps even truly great.

Still, let’s admit, in closing, that we’re lucky to live in an age when decent opera’s being written and performed at all, because as any cultural pessimist with much of an ear for history surely intuits by now, the coming years are more likely to favour unaccompanied lieder sung in basement rooms and bunkers than fully-staged operas played out at the ENO, with bankers and rich folk and other such hate-figures in attendance. Well, those of us who were there last Friday won’t forget Finley’s performance of Donne’s prayer, illuminated and dissected by those heart-rending notes to which Adams set it.

For all his naive and sometimes dog-eared left-wing politics, I admire Adams’ willingness to address himself to big historical themes. I like the fact that he’s willing to place himself in the tradition of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss and other serious composers, attempting to distil genuinely important things into art. The ambition, I suppose, counts for something in itself. And I very much liked Dr Atomic, although I suspect that what I enjoyed, and what I took away from it, may not be what Adams intended.

Quite a lot of the texture of Dr Atomic presupposes an audience who assume that nuclear warfare is a bad thing, per se. As someone who’s never been able to understand why dropping two atomic bombs on Japan should be considered so much worse than dropping plenty of incendiary bombs on civilian targets, which the US Air Force (to which I have a considerable family attachment) had already done and would presumably otherwise continue to do, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have never bothered me as much as perhaps they should. Let’s repeat all together: war’s absolutely appalling, obviously, and generally best avoided. All the same, people who have seen both war and peace often claim, sometimes quite loudly, that the unspeakable violence of war can be, and often is, if not entirely justified, than at any rate better than the alternative.

Happily, born into a safe and happy nation in the mid-1960s, I cannot argue with such people on the basis of personal experience. At the same time, I’d rather not argue with them on the basis of anachronistic prejudice alone.

And by the same token, I’d no more second-guess the decision of an extremely intelligent, tough-minded, resourceful and morally sentient man to build a weapon that could kill many hundreds of thousands of his fellow creatures than I’d second-guess the very nuanced and limited regrets that Oppenheimer later expressed about his involvement with the Manhattan Project — regrets to which the composer of Dr Atomic gives no explicit voice. All that, though, is the stuff of history. Dr Atomic is the stuff of art. It’s worth remembering the difference.

Finally, let’s note that composer Phillip Glass has recently completed an opera borrowing its title from one of my favourite poems, Waiting for the Barbarians. With a score by South African author J. M. Coetzee, based on his novel of the same name, it is billed ‘a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed’.

I can’t wait.


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