Thursday, October 9, 2008
Music for a Thursday: Doctor Atomic
I was all set to blog about Gilbert and Sullivan today, but that post is being preempted, because yesterday I happened to be in the right place at the right time to receive the unexpected gift of tickets to the final dress rehearsal of John Adams's opera Doctor Atomic, which took place at the Metropolitan Opera today. I'm extremely grateful for this gift. The opera is about the scientists of the Manhattan Project as they prepare for the test explosion of the first atomic bomb in the summer of 1945, and the curtain opens on an astonishing set: the cross-section of an office building -- the lab at Los Alamos -- divided into many cubicles, each big enough to represent the office of one of the Manhattan Project scientists; these cubicles are covered with window shades, on which the actual security clearance photos of the real Manhattan Project scientists are projected. Then the shades are pulled up from within each cubicle by the excellent singers of the Met Opera Chorus, one per cubicle. The singing was exceptional from all parties; Gerald Finley, above, shone in particular as J. Robert Oppenheimer. My only complaint is that John Adams's compositional style does not allow for the development of character through music -- each character's music is pretty similar to that of the others: long, slow-moving vocal lines over a tense, fast, minutely-subdivided orchestral beat. Adams instead uses text to delineate character, and the libretto of the opera was compiled from many sources by Peter Sellars: not only the obvious historical sources and Oppenheimer's and Edward Teller's own writings -- and the Bhagavad Gita, which Oppenheimer famously quoted at the actual test of the atomic bomb in 1945 -- but also the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire, and John Donne. Oppenheimer's magnificent first-act aria is, in fact, a setting of 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.
If you are in New York this month, try to see it; it's one of the most remarkable works of music-theater I've ever seen at the Met, or anywhere.
On my way to the Met, I was fortunate to have another great musical experience: an encounter in the subway with the traditional string band The Ebony Hillbillies. I'm a fan of old-time music, and in fact one of my best friends is married to the frontman of one of my favorite bluegrass bands, The Crooked Jades. The Ebony Hillbillies struck me as a very fortuitous find. I bought one of their CDs, and hope to hear more of them in the future.