Today Penny Woolcock directed a performance (about 3 hours and 20 minutes total elapsed time, about 2 hours and 40 minutes performance) at the Metropolitan Opera of the contemporary opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars, in two long acts, each with several scenes. The Met website link is this.
The opera was broadcast in high definition to a large number of modern motion picture theaters around the country.
The opera covers the events that lead up to the “Trinity” test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in the summer of 1945.
The style of the libretto is a bit verbose, slowing the story down to explore the political ramifications of the test. There are many interesting political points raised, such as whether individual Germans should be held morally responsible for what the Nazi government had done – but the opera takes place after the surrender of Germany in May 1945. Later, in the second Act, Dr. Edward Teller questions whether the test could set the entire atmosphere of the Earth on fire. There is a lot of exchange over the philosophical importance of getting at the “truth” as opposed to getting the Trinity test done and winning the war. There is also discussion over whether the Japanese should be warned, and of the selection of Japanese cities to be targeted. There is mention of Potsdam, and apprehension of the future role of the Soviet Union.
The music is linear and dissonance. The fast passages tend to have many repeated notes, complex rhythms and percussion effects, and resemble Shostakovich (as we know that composer from the Fourth Symphony). The louder and faster passages are tonal, and tend to use e minor and d minor a lot (I think I can tell by ear). The slower passages tend to be lush but dodecaphonic, a bit in the style of Alban Berg. The tempos in the arias are quite slow (lengthening the opera) but tend to make it technically manageable to sing.
The ending of Act I is violent and shattering, rather like the end of a symphonic first movement. The opera ends quietly after the atomic blast, which is quite stunning, the stage effects reduced to black and white, overlaid with quotations in Japanese from what survivors in Hiroshima would have said.
During the intermission, John Adams (born in 1947) gave an interview, and talked about how he grew up with the Cold War as setting up the social and moral ideology everyone believed in. (So did I, born in 1943.) He also mentioned that the development of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s was seen as a bigger threat to the United States than to the Soviet Union, because the United States had more large cities. This would suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 could make a good subject for opera. But so would the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the title character, is sung by Baritone Gerald Finley. Films that have dealt with the atomic bomb tests include “Infinity” “Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Enola Gay and the Atomic Bombing of Japan.”