Mrs. Oppenheimer's woes

Doctor Atomic by John Adams

Amy Charles 7 September 2008

Workaholic: Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production (photo: Terrence McCarthy/San Francisco Opera)

The failure of the opera’s team to bring the pleasure in the work of science and engineering to life deprives the opera of an important tension: the lust for knowing how to make a good bomb

The song begins on the Los Alamos dunes before dawn, on a minimal, promising set that puts one in mind of St-Exupery’s Wind, Sand, and Stars: a landscape where people ought not to be. Slowly, as the light shifts and a bomb-making factory comes into being, a chorus of workers emerges. They chant:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed
But only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed
But only altered in form….

All problems are believed
To have been solved
At least well enough
To make a bomb practicable….

The devastation from a single bomb
Is expected to be comparable to that
Of a major air raid by usual methods.

A weapon has been developed
That is potentially destructive
Beyond the wildest nightmares
Of the imagination;
A weapon so ideally suited
To sudden unannounced attack
That a country’s major cities
Might be destroyed overnight
By an ostensibly friendly power.

This weapon has been created
Not by the devilish inspiration
Of some warped genius
But by the arduous labor
Of thousands of normal men and women
Working for the safety of their country.

I’d read this much of Peter Sellars’ libretto on the Exploratorium’s handsome website devoted to John Adams’ new opera Doctor Atomic; the words are excerpted from a document written for the US Government by the physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth in 1945. Much of the libretto has been liberated from government documents and, reading, I was immediately delighted with the voices of these people working under enormous pressure, people living in a heightened state of lucidity which they may or may not have appreciated at the time.

Smyth’s words have the timbre of a particular man’s voice, in a particular time. The timbre alone tells much of a story. But imagine forty men and women, more interested in musicality than in history or science or story, chanting these words across the planes of John Adams’ score. On the Chicago stage, the particularity of Smyth’s voice was lost; his intelligence and urgency drained away. There was no science, no bomb engineering, no war; only Science, a fetish. I found it less interesting, and less humane, than Smyth’s voice had been, and I thought maybe I’d made a mistake in driving four hours to Chicago.

The Greek technicians’ chorus gives way to an act devoted to the sweaty tension of making a “practicable bomb” and scheduling the Trinity test amid lightning storms. We learn, through increasingly anxious song, that a lightning strike might be disastrous. Oppenheimer arrives in the person of baritone Gerald Finley, a spare character in a double-breasted suit. All nerves, he paces frenetically, and yet, by the second scene, it had occurred to me that he was less character than natty period suit. This neurasthenic suit is kept in check by a General Leslie Groves (Eric Owen, bass-baritone) suffering permanent indigestion and chronically suspicious of intellectuals.

Early in the act, Groves and Oppenheimer dismiss scientists’ terrible misgivings about the Bomb, with Edward Teller (baritone Paul Fink) singing part of a letter he’s received from a father of the chain reaction, Leo Szilard. Szilard wants Teller’s signature on a petition; he’s begging Truman to warn the Japanese and to think twice about using an atomic bomb at all. Oppie brushes off Szilard and warns Teller against politics. Likewise, Los Alamos idealist Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn) tries to organize his own band of frightened scientists and Oppenheimer squashes him flat.

These politics are sung in snippets from memos and letters, not dramatized. Read the excerpts, and the physicists’ voices and urgencies come through plainly. In the theatre, those excerpts sounded to me like student notes on historical fears, and they died in the frantic busyness of bomb-making gestures onstage. I’d bet ten bucks that members of the audience who arrived without knowing Szilard’s story couldn’t have said what all that letter-reading business of Teller’s was about. Only later did it occur to me that perhaps Sellars hadn’t meant to dramatize the politics; that he was instead alluding to historical episodes, waving at them as the opera went by.

Science, too, gets its hand-waves. About two years ago, when I was writing about problems of dealing with science in fiction, I wrote about novelists’ tendency to wheel Science in on a pallet, point to it, cry, “Science!” and make some metaphor around it, then wheel it off. I’d meant this figuratively, of course, but I am distressed to report that in this act, Science is literally wheeled in on a pallet, in the form of a bomblike tank, and sits there while the characters sing of the project’s importance, and sing words related to bits of the science involved. There’s also a chalkboard on wheels with formulas scrawled all over it. People sing next to it and look worried.

In lieu of dramatic tension, Adams’ music drives on, and every so often a set of six dancers runs across the set in a circle, spinning and weaving with increasingly frantic disorder. I presume they were meant to be quarks but find no explanation on the website or in the program. After their first few trips across the stage I thought they became an irritatingly literal motif. Also compensating for lack of dramatic story is frequent, needless Bomb-lowering and Bomb-raising on a gantry. Up, down, up, down, until you wish the damn thing would just go off.

The first act also sees the arrival of Kitty Oppenheimer (soprano Jessica Rivera), who functions as a sort of global conscience, and is assigned the usual womanly burdens: irrational, hysteric sensibility and mystical seeing, concern for love, and pleading for peace. In a long and rather eerie domestic duet with Oppenheimer, she disturbs his bedtime reading by singing “Am I in your light,” until he becomes, briefly, romantic, then goes back to work and more Bomb up-downery, leaving her alone again. The threat of lightning and smithereens continues to wind, more through music than story, though Groves’ insistence that the scientists deliver a definitive weather forecast is a lovely piece of military lunacy and need.

Wholly unexpectedly, the act closes with eight transcendent minutes. Oppenheimer is alone below the gantry, a picture of nervous exhaustion in thrall to his Bomb. He sings, or has drawn out of him, Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The reference is Oppenheimer’s own; the poem gave him the name “Trinity” for the test site. That doesn’t matter. In those few minutes are all you can ask of an opera: the words are art (not Sellars’, but who cares), the song is art, the theatre is art, the dance is art. It’s unreasonable to expect more than one of these elements to work at a time, and one might say unreasonable to expect art at all. But in those moments Doctor Atomic has everything, and they remain the most cryingly beautiful moments I have seen in years. They put me in mind of something I read in the New Yorker fifteen years ago or so:

I heard David Sylvester say…that he wondered if Yeats, great a poet as he was, failed to be among the greatest because he lacked ‘helplessness’. The Greek poet Nikos Stangos, who was present, suggested that Yeats was limited because he was, however subtle, rhetorical – his poetry was constrained by its complicated intentions. It occurred to me that the same might be said of the work of Francis Bacon, but with an essential difference: he himself, aware of the constraint of illustration and wanting to eschew it, tried, with even more than will, with driving passion, to go beyond it and give his work helplessness.

The second act fails to deliver on this marvelous promise by opening with a scene that confuses stereotype with mythic figure. Kitty and her Native American nanny (contralto Meredith Arwady) are holed up with the children waiting for the bomb to go off; the white lady is soused and has left the care of her children to the local Mother Earth representative. Because she’s Native American, thus wise, the nanny drifts in and out of ancestral visions and croons to the children about “cloud-flowers” blossoming in the desert. Kitty continues in her role as the nervous, sensitive female element, crying out against an unnamed horror, then falling back shellacked, Mrs.-Robinson-style. Her words are the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s, from 1945: “Now I say that the peace the spirit needs is peace, not lack of war, but fierce continual flame.” It’s not Donne, and she hasn’t Finley’s compelling theatre; she shrieks about the fierce continual flame, and the effect, I thought, was incoherent. (Later, I read Rukeyser’s poem, which has a flesh-and-blood, citywise sensibility. Rukeyser was a street fighter, a Jewish feminist. I think the incoherence onstage comes from the poem’s poor fit with Rivera’s Kitty, who isn’t particularly fierce.)

We’re delivered from Kitty and the Earth Nanny by Teller, who arrives cheerfully selling fears of setting the world on fire. (I never thought I’d wish for Edward Teller to come save me, but I did throughout the second half of the show. Teller was the opera’s lone character with a sense of humor, and the only scientist who looked like a guy who worked.) The elder Oppenheimer child lounges on his mother, all but plucking daisy petals and counting down. At this point my companion grumbled that the opera might as well have been about clubbing seals, or global warming. Lights flash green and red, because Something Terrible is about to happen. When the Bomb does go, the world isn’t set on fire; the opera house is bathed in green light and we’re subjected to several minutes of canned howling that put me in mind of the 1981 BBC nuclear-Armageddon gorefest Threads.

I want to return to the scene with Kitty and the nanny, because I think it points the way to the opera’s main dramatic problem. Kitty plays Cassandra, but why? Whence this terrible, 21st-century-flavored foreboding?

Adams’ original commission was to write a modern Faust, and for a Faust you need, at a minimum, four things. You need a knowledge-seeker of overweening hubris and lust; you need a devil willing to sell him knowledge for soul; you need an audience who can see what’s going to go wrong and yell, “No, no, no,”; and you need the moment where the bill comes due. Kitty, I think, is meant to sing for us, yelling “no, no, no” as Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan District team – and perhaps the nation – sell their collective soul. All right. But for dramatic tension to exist, it has to be reasonable that the bomb-makers get an offer for their soul, and reasonable (however wrongheaded) that they take it. What struck me as curious about Doctor Atomic was that at no point is there any palpable sense that the world’s great nations are years into a massively destructive war, or that the Bomb is meant to end it, or that there’s real fear of the enemy getting it first. Had those realities existed dramatically in the opera, they’d have caught the audience between the urgencies of war and the truth of Kitty’s vision. There’s the basic tension, and there’s no reason to use sexism – giving that seer’s vision to the sensitive female – to divide the voices, pro and con.

Call the political fact the devil, then. Where is Faust’s reason for taking the bargain – not the political fear, but that sleepwalking lust for knowledge? To read the stories of scientists and engineers working on the Bomb, the pleasure of making a working bomb was real enough in 1945. But the failure of the opera’s team to bring the pleasure in the work of science and engineering to life deprives the opera of an important tension: the lust for knowing how to make a good bomb against Kitty’s “no, no, no”. My suspicion is that the failure stems from lack of understanding of scientists’ and engineers’ work. That’s not an unusual problem when fiction – and this is a fiction – tells a story from science or engineering, but it can be fixed by the artists’ taking trouble to learn, so that the physicist’s and engineer’s work is as real to them as is the garrett-dwellers’ in La Boheme. Others have done it. Mary Shelley, Robert Musil, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon all managed to make it real.

It’s because that work hasn’t been done in Doctor Atomic that the words “Matter can be neither destroyed nor created, but only altered in form” are severed from the vision and clarity of mind that produced them in the 18th century. It’s why Smyth’s phrases have no mind or voice as they’re sung by the tech acolytes on stage in the first scene, and why the horror they generate is a political horror, and not the horror of hearing science as rite. I wonder if Sellars was reaching for a sort of religious allusion in this scene to mirror Oppenheimer’s talk of Hindu mythology; maybe it was meant to come off as connoting transubstantiation. I think it would be superficial; I think it would fail to appreciate the deep shock of meaning in both transubstantiation and the law of conservation of mass. You can, of course, take a cheap touch of transubstantiation, and use it to foreshadow a similarly cheap transformation of consciousness, or sense of what humans are capable of, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We’ve accounted now for the devil, Faust, and the audience. What about the moment of reckoning?

Oppenheimer didn’t, in the end, publicly regret having helped to make a practicable bomb. Nor, if you talk to Americans who were grown men and women in 1945, do you hear much in the way of regret. The Bomb was at the time viewed by a good many Americans as necessary to show the Emperor of Japan irresistible force and the will to use it. I believe that, were the same situation to exist today, the majority of the country’s citizens would hold the same grim view, which does not spring solely from brutality. We saw some evidence of this not too terribly long ago here, when so many Americans called on the US Government to “bomb Afghanistan into a parking lot”.

In 1946, a year after V-J Day, John Hersey wrote a little book, Hiroshima, published as an entire issue of the New Yorker. It tells the stories of five Japanese people and a German missionary priest and what happened to them when the bomb went off; it’s a quiet, articulate book, and it has a crestfallen horror. It also made concrete some immediate costs of the bomb. The book – and its countering critics at the start of the Cold War – began a long reckoning about the meaning of obliterating a city with a nuclear bomb. The reckoning continues; we’ve come through a lurid, frozen horror of mutually assured destruction to a young person’s post-1989 view which counts nuclear bombs as one more tool of war.

There’s nothing as thoughtful or concrete as Hersey’s writing at the end of Doctor Atomic, and no honesty about the ambivalence, the arguments, the forgetting that followed. Again, Sellars and Adams take the less interesting road, which means browbeating the audience with PETA-quality screaming. And again I think of Vonnegut, who wrote both Slaughterhouse-Five and the image of Mr. Lincoln shaking his fist at Gettysburg and walking away. Sellars, by the way, acknowledges the problem in a program interview:

The sheer horror by itself – art is not up to that. There’s nothing you can put on a stage or in a painting that matches the suffering of those people. Therefore the art becomes – if it’s sincere – strangely inadequate, and if it’s sincere, really obscene….The hope we have is that we make something that does have the feeling of what it’s like to be alive right now – with that intensity, with that sense that the stakes are that high – global stakes. That what we do as Americans actually has incredible consequences – genuinely high stakes for the future of the planet.

So it is about global warming after all. And it is inadequate – not because of the enormity of the subject, but because of something else Sellars says in the interview:

I was shocked when John Adams said, “I want to make an opera about Los Alamos. For me, the hardest thing about the subject matter is that it’s so clichéd. …"

Well, no, it isn’t; not unless you take the clichés seriously, and the story is rich enough, with vigorous enough voices and branching enough thought, to make that unnecessary. In the end I say Sellars is making propaganda. This is what happens when you won’t let a serious and complex story tell itself, and instead put across the feel of an activist network’s news feed.

The opera has met with mixed reviews, although it’s now called a modern masterpiece. The original production in San Francisco was praised, and the applause went on for six minutes, but critics called the opera rough and too long; after the revised production in Chicago, some opera-goers in the lobby were annoyed by the lack of story. Other reviewers have praised the music in particular, or seem to have been impressed that the opera involves science. I think the libretto is less intelligent and human than the voices it appropriates, and that it underestimates both its own story and the current moment. Much is redeemed by Finley’s crisis beneath the Bomb at the end of Act I, which pins me to a card nine months after hearing it. Doctor Atomic will be at the Met in New York this October, and if you go only for those few minutes, go.

Related information

Amy Charles saw the production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago earlier this year. Doctor Atomic next plays 13 October to 13 November 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York before moving to the English National Opera in London.