Doctor Atomic

This modern opera debuted in San Francisco in 2005. It now comes to Chicago. I suspect that some wished that it had stayed put on the left coast.

Composer Adams, who previously collaborated with Peter Sellars on the surprisingly pleasing “Nixon in China”, joined him again to recreate the famous Trinity story. No, not about the three part god that created this flat earth 6,018 years ago. Rather, the story set in New Mexico, circa 1945, when mortal man strove to play god with neutrons and protons.

Adams tried to create a dark, stress-filled, conflicted time, punctuated by tiny spasms of humor. It is not that he failed, it is how he failed.

The story, for those who need a refresher, involves the grand-daddies of the A-bomb, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson, and of course, General Leslie Groves, the army guy who hates civilians, especially THESE civilians. In real life, Oppie collected a group of geniuses so great that conversations between them, according to normal people, often resembled nothing they could recognize as English. Adams’ answer to that was to have Sellars write a libretto so lame as to be almost insulting.

Musically, Adams tried to recount the strains and political differences of the time, when more than a few scientists demanded that Japan get a warning and a display, before we killed thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of women and children. Instead of penning a fascinating theme in sound, Adams combined dead silence and (wish you were dead) pauses, with atonal, non-musical, exercises, in what is possibly the worst caricature of modern music yet experienced.

It gets worse, if possible. While neo-modern, non-musical music has a place in our musical landscape, it should be used with care. For example, it works fantastically well during conversations and fights between Oppie and General Groves, with Groves ordering subordinates to spy on Oppie and change the weather, while promising to replace several of the key scientists for being too liberal and peace-loving. Seriously, Adams’ total lack of anything approaching a redeeming musical tune truly expresses the tension, the different approaches, even the dislike and disdain between the Army and the scientists. As I said, it gets worse.

For reasons that remain totally hidden to the audience, and possibly unknowable even to Adams and Sellars, much like the infamous live wingless turkey toss by a WKRP radio helicopter, Adams’ insistence to inject sex and an Indian baby sitter into the scheme is just bizarre.

Instead of providing a counterbalance to the war effort, or some insight into the stress that everyone was under, or even adding some depth to personalities that both Adams and Sellars fail miserably at developing, the addition of women standing silently, spouting inane statements, singing the most miserable, atonal, non-musical vocal exercises gives the audience a feeling of dread so deep that Pastor Ag noticed almost everyone checking their watches or their programs to learn hom much more they had to endure.

At least twenty minutes of the first act was wasted this way, with Oppie and his wife in bed. Imagine twenty minutes of agony, with the audience silently begging them to speed up, to do something, to say something that made sense, or better yet, to add some musical quality to the scene. Alas, no. It was not to be. The only thing that scene offered was a warning that Adams was about to repeat a totally unnecessary waste of time in the second act, as well.

And so it was. Sure enough, a scene that lasted way too long started early in Act II. The Indian baby sitter and Oppie’s wife.

Adams even tried to throw a bone to the audience, by forcing the ladies to sing atonally, just as Oppie or Groves were singing about another subject. But to do that, one must provide some musical background, a theme, a tune, something that audience can relate to. A cantankerous, catatonic collection of cat sounds featuring a baritone, an alto and a soprano, as done by Adams, only serves to irritate already sensitive nerves and ears. Even the many episodes of Oppie’s wife and baby sitter simply hugging each other grated on the nerves. Why waste our time? Do Adams and Sellars get paid for how long they can stretch out a good idea in miserable ways?

Had Adams hired a good musical editor, a good 40 minutes could have been cut from this uneven, irritating, even painful production. That lack of 40 minutes, done properly, would have made a clearly interesting idea far more palatable, even enjoyable. But no, we did not witness a palatable, or enjoyable performance, despite an excellent cast and an exciting, minimalistic, yet, interactive staging. The singers were all strong; their material failed them a few too many times.

It is fitting, therefore, to bring this review to a close. Oppie’s, Fermi’s and pretty much everyone else’s biggest fear was that 2 Billion dollars had been wasted in what would be a horrible failure, what the scientists dubbed a “fizzle”.

(The real Trinity blast had everyone on edge. Had the many detonators failed to detonate at exactly the same time, or exploded a milisecond too soon or too late, they would have had a supremely expensive dud. The explosives would not created a pressure wave sufficient to compress the plutonium into a critical mass, triggering the atomic blast)

It is therefore fitting to describe how Adams and Sellars chose to end this uneven monstrosity. Everyone lays down on the ground, the lights go dark, some recorded sounds a played, and everything goes silent.

In other words, a fizzle.

What a fitting ending for this opera. To make it even worse, no one in the audience could tell that it was over. Finally, one brave soul began to clap, while many, many others reached for their coats.

There are growing numbers of yutes who are attracted by opera in Chicago. Voice classes are filling up; well-trained voices are becoming more numerous. It is also exciting to see new modern works, like Nixon in China, and other pieces, where opera and modern staging and approaches work like magic.

That said, it is a pity that such an interesting idea was mangled so badly by Adams and Sellars.