I really enjoyed an opera today. Not kind of enjoyed it, like with the Portland Opera's Faust a couple of years back. Not somewhat enjoyed it, like with Willamette's Dramatic Vocal Arts' Die Fledermaus last spring. No, I actually enjoyed an entire opera, three-and-a-half hours though it was.
Dr. Atomic, John Adams' newest opera, premiered a couple years ago with the San Francisco Opera. I guess it's hit the big time now that the Metropolitan Opera's performed it. Not only that, but they sent it live to movie theaters all over the country in high definition, which is how I saw it in Portland.
The opera's subject was the coolest part of the entire show. Science has always fascinated me, as has politics, and their intersection always causes fireworks. Galileo and Copernicus, Darwin, Marie Curie, even Albert Einstein. But no bigger fireworks have erupted than those from the Manhattan Project. The beaurocratic back-and-forth was the most fascinating past of Dr. Atomic: the general who wanted to go forward with the test no matter what, the meteorologist who was ordered to give a more favorable weather forecast, the low-ranked scientist whose warnings about the test were completely
ignored, due to the urgency of an attack on Japan. Dr. Oppenheimer himself, the title character, supported the project as a scientist, and worked loyally at his job, only to realize after the bombs were dropped that the whole idea was an ethical mistake. When he spoke out, he lost his standing with the government and his security clearance, breaking his spirit and destroying his career as a scientist.
The opera's music carefully supported the storyline. Instead of rich, operatic phrasings, John Adams instead chose speech-like melodic structures, which adhered closely to a specifically pensive motif. The instrumental interludes were considerably more lush, frequently escalating into a minimalist frenzy, to which the on-stage performers would move in careful choreography. Most exciting, though, were the political exchanges. Some were more confrontational, and some simply perfunctory, but all fit solidly within the music, and moreoever were entertaining to enjoy, constantly moving the storyline forward.
The opera was separated into three recurring, mostly separate sections. Dr. Oppenheimer and his scientists (and the general in charge of the test) discussing matters of science and politics; epic odes to and about Vishnu, the Hindu god who preserves the universe (Oppenheimer was apparently fluent in sanscrit), including a row of apparent Hindu gods chilling in boxes in the top row of the set; and 17th century poetry recited by Dr. Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty.
Kitty's arias were the only boring music in the entire opera. It could have been the love poetry she sang as arias, which was a let-down after an hour of politically-charged dialogue. It could have been the slightly monotonous (and motif-heavy) music, suddenly without the support of clever and imperative dialogue and reflection. It could also have been the staging, drastically reduced for Kitty to a single bed, from several enrapturing sets of epic size.
The first, as the opera opens, is a set of boxes four high and 12-ish wide. Each contained a member of the chorus, and each was equipped with a pull-down shade for the front, on which occasional images were projected. The set piece came back several times as the opera progressed, and the vertical space was well-used by the performers, often passing dialogue or papers down from the top level.
The second major set component was a huge swath of white material, draped over several sharp points (or suspended from several wires). Imagine the Matterhorn mountain with smoother curves. It caught my attention every time it came out, and it was well-used allegorically toward the opera's ending.
The final magnificent part of the set was the bomb itself. Huge, round, and silver (slightly tarnished), surrounded by wires, plugs, and gadgets. Plenty for the performers to futz with when they wanted to look busy. I wonder if the Met built it themselves, or if they borrowed it from the last company to stage Dr. Atomic. (I know that the Portland Opera, when it did Nixon in China, collaborated with several other opera companies, sharing the cost and burden of designing and constructing an entire set.)
I can't finish without acknowledging the orchestra's magnificant realization of a seriously complicated score. Rhythmically, so much more complex than "normal" opera music, yet perfectly executed by the Met orchestra. I guess that's why they're the Met orchestra. :-) Several solo lines were brought out beautifully, on clarinet, oboe, and flute, and many more instruments that I don't specifically remember. But as a clarinetist, I must acknowledge principal clarinet Stephen Williamson, who I assume played the gorgeous solos.
The singers were great too. Dr. Oppenheimer stood out as particularly closely-attached to his lines. He was clearly feeling the emotional conflict of his character. The rest of the lead singers sounded great, and (more importantly, I think) were right in time with the wit and dialogue of their characters. The meteorologist Jack Hubbard, played brilliantly in this performance by an actor whose name I honestly couldn't find anywhere on the internet (they didn't distribute programs at the movie theater), was not just funny but exceedingly human. [Edit: The singer's name is Earle Patriarco, the Met tells me in an e-mail.] The real Jack Hubbard, I found out later, was pulled out of a class at Cal Tech by a professor who didn't realize the gravity of the situation. I loved the actor's reactions when General Groves basically ordered Hubbard to make the weather clear up for the test. (He threatened to lock Hubbard up for life if the rain continued, and later to have him killed for treason and insubordination.)
As someone who has genuinely enjoyed about three operas in my lifetime, I strongly urge everyone to go see this one. For one thing, $22 is a LOT cheaper than the $300-ish they charge at the actual Met. More importantly, it's not just accessibly, but genuinely enjoyable for people with any range of musical experience. Even if you think you hate opera, I guarantee that the political intrigue will get you through it, and the stagings are just breathtaking. Click here to see where the closest theater is, when they rebroadcast it two Wednesdays from now, at 7 pm local time. Maybe I'll see you there!