I saw the Met's HD presentation of John Adam's Dr. Atomic (libretto by Peter Sellars) last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Spending a Saturday afternoon watching an opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic test definitely seems like something that might require an eclectic taste, and to be honest, I didn't think that it was a taste that I had. But, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the opera.
If you want an excellent review of the opera, you should go read Ted's post about it. He did a much better job of a review than I could ever do. But, I will endeavor here to put some sort of shape to the many thoughts I've had this week about the opera.
The opera starts out with the chorus chanting Matter is neither created nor destroyed. This is a tenet that I've always thought of as being as much spiritual as it is scientific. I've known many people who have thought that this is a rather odd perspective. But, I've always looked at the periodic table of elements, with its perfect assembly of elements, as evidence (though not proof) that the universe was created by some sort of superior intelligence. I can't envision such ordered beauty could be developed randomly. In reflecting on the opera, this seems a perfect choice to start the opera, as there is a tension throughout about what the was being unleashed upon the world by man ushering in the atomic age.
There is a Faustian undercurrent throughout. (How could there not be?) At first it seemed as if Oppenheimer scoffs at the idea of any sort of moral implications of the bomb, but throughout the opera, he suffers from doubt and awe at what he has done privately while admonishing physicist Robert Wilson about his efforts to have scientists petition the government not to use the bomb on population centers. The opera doesn't deal with Oppenheimer after the war, but allegedly he was very depressed after the bombings of Japan. Even people who do horrific things, or produce horrific things with good intentions as did Oppenheimer, have doubts privately.
There are many literary references throughout the opera's libretto: Baudelaire, John Donne, Bhagavad-gita, Muriel Rukeyser, Native-American songs. I was fascinated by the use of entire poems in the libretto. While they complemented not only the music, but also the tension in the libretto, I was at first unsure about how I felt about the use, or why Adams and Sellers decided to include them. I liked them, but I was puzzled about why there was so much. But, afterwards I did some more reading on the opera, and discovered an interview with John Adams discussing the works the Oppenheimer read. Adams referred to Oppenheimer as being one of the most cultured scientists we have ever had. Two of Donne's works, -- one Holy Sonnet 14 was sung as an aria -- were cited by Oppenheimer as inspiring him to name the test site Trinity. I always thought that Trinity was a bit sacrilegious, but know that I know why Oppenheimer named it, I don't think that it was. Instead, I think that it might have been his way of acknowledging some inner struggle with what they were developing. But perhaps I'm reading too much into it.
I loved the Batter my heart aria. I thought the music was lovely. I have always liked this sonnet, but have struggled with coming to terms with it. (I wrote about Donne's sonnet here last year). The poem is a paradox and is fitting in its use in this opera. It is violent, yet begs for mercy, love and redemption. This aria is a moving, tour-de-force. A few days after I saw this, I came across a passage from theologian Walter Brueggemann that discussed how scripture utters, shatters, destroys, and creates. I couldn't help but think about Donne's sonnet, and the opera. Matter is neither created nor destroyed.
Here is a clip of Gerald Finley singing the Donne aria: