October 25, 2008


The Opera's New Clothes: Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic. (Ron Rosenbaum, Oct. 24, 2008, Slate)

Since I had recently been to Hiroshima and am working on a book about the new face of nuclear warfare, I'd been thinking about the nuclear version of the Faustian dilemma. Especially about the phenomenon of ineradicability. Faust signs his contract with the devil—in which he agrees to give Lucifer his soul when he dies in return for being granted all earthly wishes—with a pen dipped in his own blood. But, predictably, when it comes time to carry out his part of the bargain and descend to hell, Faust cries out for a reprieve, for divine mercy.

At the end of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, when Faust's ticket to hell is about to be punched, he cries out:

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul ...

It is one of the most heart-rending pleas in literature. But no mercy is forthcoming. Faust offers to burn his books in exchange for divine mercy, because his lust for knowledge—here's the Oppenheimer parallel—the knowledge he thought the devil could bestow on him was the reason he sold his soul.

It's too late. Books can be burned, but information cannot be destroyed. Similarly, it's too late for us. Nuclear bombs can be banned, but the knowledge—the equations—required to remake them cannot be eradicated. Oppenheimer was among the first to realize this. Once the spells for conjuring up the nuclear devil had been written down, they could be erased but not eliminated, deleted but not destroyed. They had entered the world and the world had entered hell.

Exciting stuff, then: Faust, Oppenheimer.

What material for transformation into tragic operatic art! Or so one would think, until one actually sees Doctor Atomic or, as I think of it now, the Emperor's New Opera.

There is some lack of clarity in the program about the opera's authors; it was conceived by John Adams (composer of the previous contemporary-history operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, about the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jew by Palestinian terrorists) and produced for the Met by Penny Woolcock. But the libretto has largely been "written," if that's a verb you can apply to this text, by theater and opera director Peter Sellars, who has compiled an assemblage of quotes from books and documents interspersed with the work of noted poets and dialogue of provenance uncertain to me.

Adams and Sellars have chosen to focus on the days before the first Los Alamos test, less than a month before the bomb was used on Hiroshima. And on the conflicts among—and within—the atomic scientists assembled by Oppenheimer.

I was expecting something powerful and sophisticated. And the music and the sets couldn't have been more effectively dramatic.

But the libretto, the words ... They were pedestrian, speechifying, and painfully simplistic (when not embarrassingly schlocky as in the "love scenes"). Yes, it's true, opera librettos comprise their own genre. Opera lyrics are not poetry. But these ones suffer in particular from the contrast between the pretentious grandiosity of operatic treatment and the actual, disappointing content. And "singing" relentlessly dull prose does not raise it to the level of art. Instead it makes everything sound—forgive me—bombastic.

Imagine, if you will, starting at the top of this column and "singing" it, intoning it with a tuneless, stentorian, pompous affect.

Come on, try! Give it your best mock operatic treatment:

Does this ever happen to you:
You discover key forgotten elements
In over familiar fables ...

Now imagine these (admittedly pedestrian) words being performed on what looks like a multimillion-dollar set by a male chorus making dreadfully hammy gestures at one another?

No, that still doesn't capture it. To appreciate the bad poetry of this libretto, you must see how it veers from the utterly pedestrian—

[Deep operatic voice] Well how do you feel?
[Less deep operatic voice] Well, pretty excited.

—to the consciously "poetic." Not merely when the libretto uses actual poetry taken from Donne and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, but when it give us lines like:

The hackneyed light of evening
Quarrels with the bulbs ...

Who or what is being "hackneyed" here? Sellars does not make it clear in his libretto what—if anything—he wrote and what he "appropriated." But clearly he has a career as a curator of bad poetry. His "appropriations" sound fake-profound when not merely ridiculous (the way they might not sound in context). Even Donne's "Holy Sonnet," which is magnificent, is mangled.

I found myself sitting stunned in the well-dressed opening-night crowd. Rarely an operagoer myself (I prefer poetry and drama without orchestral distractions), I'd nonetheless always respected operagoers for what I presumed to be their sophisticated taste. What amazed me was the respectful, reverent, awed look on the faces of the crowd around me. I could glimpse them most clearly when the lights came up for intermission.

Virtually all of the other faces in the audience had this somber, awed, this-is-important-art-we-are-witnessing look. A look of suffering: "We are weighed down by the terrible profundity of it all. We're in the Metropolitan Opera, for God's sake. This thing must be profound!"

But then I recalled these lines from the "love scene" between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty:

... only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love ...

I'm sorry to have to say it, but there are an abundance of lyrics like this in the libretto, which made Doctor Atomic begin to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera. (And, yes, I get it: "Splitting the skull" is like splitting the atom! Stop cringing; it's literary! No, sorry: It's ludicrous.)

I have rarely felt so alone as I felt at that intermission. I felt like the kid in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Do words not matter in opera? It's not something I'd thought about, because opera is so often in a foreign language, which discourages close reading. But I began to wonder whether opera follows different rules: Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? Do opera buffs believe words don't need to be well-chosen but are elevated to poetic heights merely by the sonorities, or snore-ities, that they are "sung" to? In Europe, they boo lustily at badly sung arias. What is one to do in America at offensively trivializing words?

In any case, the next evening as I was talking about my "Emperor's New Clothes" feeling, Julia Sheehan told me she'd recently reread the original Hans Christian Andersen fable and found an aspect of it that she (and I) had forgotten.

She'd always wondered, she said, why everyone in the fable went along with the gag and no one but the little boy spoke up and said the emperor was naked.

Well, I said, you know, conformity, peer pressure, fear of punishment, right?

Turns out there was another element: In the Andersen version, everyone was told ahead of time that the emperor's new costume was so radical and different that stupid people wouldn't even be able to see it. And nobody wanted to be considered stupid. Which reminded me of a feeling I often have at overhyped Broadway dramas about "important" subjects: The applause you hear at the end is the audience applauding itself. Just for being there at what they've been told is such an important artistic event. Stupid people wouldn't understand.

That had to be it! With the entire apparatus of cultural capital supporting the idea that it was important and profound and thus good to be there in the luxuriant rosy glow of the nation's premier opera house, their assumptions cushioned by the Met's velvet seats, how could one dissent? If you didn't think you were witnessing greatness, you marked yourself as mentally challenged.

The problem being that very few composer are similarly gifted in the literary field. It's why Gilbert and Sullivan are underestimated.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2008 9:08 PM
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