Monday, January 5, 2009

The Two Oppenheimers

I just finished reading "Oppie in New York," Daniel Mendelsohn's review of the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adam's Doctor Atomic, which appeared in the latest New York Review. Mendelsohn followed a path similar to my own, reviewing Penny Woolcock's staging through the lens of the original San Francisco Opera production staged by librettist Peter Sellars. However, since our conclusions came close to being diametrically opposed, I decided this would be a good time to review my own thoughts in terms of how they stand against the many good points that Mendelsohn makes in his text.

Like Mendelsohn I am a firm believer in "reading in context;" and I agree with the strategy of his review, which bases most of its context on Adams' previous collaborations with Sellars, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. However, Mendelsohn introduced one point in passing to which I would assign greater value, which was Adams' description of Klinghoffer "as being more like a Bach oratorio or Passion than like a conventional opera" (Mendelsohn's words). Mendelsohn interpreted this remark in terms of a "static form [that] brilliantly serves the content;" but I am more inclined to take a more narratological point of view. When any composer makes the decision to set a narrative excerpt from Scripture to music, particularly if that setting is prepared for performance in a place of worship, that composer has assumed the task of telling a story for those who already know the story. There is no doubt that librettist Alice Goodman chose to frame the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in a manner radically different from any account given to us by the mainstream media; and her decision to present Palestinians and Jews as "parallel exiles" brought the production far more flack than one expects for grand opera. On the other hand the decision to mount an opera about a living American President who had resigned from office in disgrace had also engendered considerable controversy. My point is that there was so much media attention given to both the Nixon visit and the Achille Lauro incident that, in the spirit of most of Bach's sacred music, their respective operas could be more concerned with meditating on the basics of the plot, rather than just narrating those basics.

To some extent the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, is also a familiar story. Even though the test took place more than half a century ago, the incremental declassification of the documents associated with the Manhattan Project (and with other "matters of J. Robert Oppenheimer") has induced a perpetual revival of interest in the event. Each time more data become available, there are one or more new tellings of the tale that account for those data. Thus, in spite of our cultural aversion to the long view of history, there is something about the basic plot of the Manhattan Project that stays with us through this process of "updated retelling," rather in the same spirit as the Judeo-Christian retelling of Biblical stories. Consequently, the premise that one could use opera to meditate on the narrative of the Trinity test is a sound one.

Mendelsohn's primary argument, however, is that the path to Doctor Atomic was far more problematic than the respective paths to Nixon and Klinghoffer; and he makes some good points. The first of those points had to do with the opera's origin. Shortly after becoming General Director of the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg approached Adams to do an opera about Oppenheimer as part of a "Faust Project" she was planning. As Mendelsohn observed, this was basically a misconception of both Goethe and Oppenheimer:

The work's real nineteenth-century model, anyway, isn't so much Goethe's Faust as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, an Enlightenment figure whose misplaced faith in scientific creation leads inevitably, tragically, to complete destruction.

As I shall later observe, I do not quite buy Mendelsohn's warrant; but I basically agree with his claim.

The other major problem concerned the libretto. As I recall from attending a donor's event, this project lost its librettist within months of its scheduled opening. In response Sellars assembled (his word choice) a collection of texts combining Manhattan Project documents with poems that had particularly appealed to Oppenheimer. In theory this was basically a reworking of Johann Sebastian Bach's strategy of alternating Scripture with meditative poetry; but, from a literary point of view, most of the declassified documents that Sellars selected hardly rise to the artfulness of Scripture. The result is that Doctor Atomic depends more on those in the audience already knowing the story than either Nixon or Klinghoffer did; and this is a point that I feel Mendelsohn missed when he tried to compare the stagings of Sellars in San Francisco and Woolcock in New York.

Before developing this point I should point out that both Mendelsohn and I shared a common disadvantage in attempting such a comparative analysis. I attended the San Francisco Opera production but could only see the Metropolitan Opera version through HD projection. Mendelsohn was at the Met but only knew the San Francisco production through a DVD (which he only watched after having attended two Met performances). In both cases the camera is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it can compensate for inadequate staging; but it is just as likely that the camera director can miss the point that the stage director was trying to make (which I had argued was the case with the recent HD transmission of the Met production of Hector Berlioz' Damnation de Faust). Since I have not seen the San Francisco DVD, I have no idea how representative it is of my "live" experience; and I suspect that Mendelsohn has not yet compared the HD recording of the Met with his own experiences of those two performances.

Having made that point, my primary disagreement with Mendelsohn is that he gives Sellars too much credit. He sees Sellars as gifted with a "deep sense of theatricality" whose "visual inventiveness" can compensate for shortcomings in any text (and perhaps music as well). I, on the other hand, am willing to give Sellars credit where credit is due but not to write him the sort of "blank check" that Mendelsohn offered. My lower level of enthusiasm is due, at least in part, to the more recent collaboration of Adams and Sellars in A Flowering Tree, which involved a story that most of the audience did not know and devolved very quickly into an incomprehensible muddle with an excess of eye candy. Thus, I was willing to set Sellars and Woolcock on a level playing field upon which I then decided that they were best differentiated through the priorities they set.

These priorities are best understood in terms of the "grounds for meditation" that would support a Bach-like approach to the presentation of the narrative. From my point of view, those meditations are all concerned with an assemblage of "dark tensions" that roil beneath the surface of the "historical events." Four of these tensions figure in the way in which the text of Doctor Atomic emerged:

  1. The relationship between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty: This seemed to be the one that interested Sellars the most, and the confrontation between Robert's obsession with his work and Kitty's alcoholism makes for quite a clash. The problem is that the real stories behind this confrontation took place before and after the Manhattan Project. In many respects Kitty is a far more secondary character than Sellars chose to make her. Yes, she made a good vehicle for Muriel Rukeyser's "Am I in Your Light;" but I am not sure that she was a relevant vehicle for this particular narrative.
  2. The relationship between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller: This is the relationship with the most significant historical consequences. As I previously wrote, Woolcock decided to focus on this one, viewing it as the seed of the tragedies that Oppenheimer would encounter in the Fifties. Sellars, on the other hand, tried to turn Teller into a sympathetic cautionary philosopher, which, at the very least, was a gross distortion of the historical record. (Of all the members of the Manhattan Project, Teller was the one least capable of "playing well with others.")
  3. The relationship between Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves: This is actually the embodiment of a more philosophical relationship between science (concerned with what John Dewey called "inquiry") and engineering (concerned with "getting things done effectively"). As Director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer basically installed himself as the mediating agent between some of most brilliant scientific researchers of the time and the Army representative for whom building a bomb was no different from building the Pentagon. This is one area where Sellars' choices of text got things right. Oppenheimer gets all the poetry, while Groves never gets anything more than the most mundane of prose.
  4. The relationship between "twentieth-century man" and Native Americans, particularly with regard to the role of man in the face of natural forces: The most important of those natural forces was the weather. Mendelsohn carped that "the nonstop talk about matters meteorological was unintentionally hilarious." Apparently he never saw the documentary film The Day After Trinity, or he might have had more respect for Sellars' attention to the thunderstorm that almost prevented the Trinity test. Had he seen the footage of the "gadget" swinging precariously in a strong wind with lightning striking in the distance, he might have seen less humor in what was almost minute-by-minute monitoring of those "matters meteorological." At the very least that historical context makes Pasqualita's almost ritualistic aria about a gathering storm (while cleaning up Kitty's empty bottles) anything but gratuitous. The fact that the "gadget" did not detonate by accident in that storm (in which case there could well have been no Adams, no opera, and no argument between Mendelsohn and myself) was sheer luck and a reminder that, whatever his positivist pretentions may have been, twentieth-century man could not control everything.

Mendelsohn's "bottom line" is that "Doctor Atomic is a show that can't—and doesn't—go on." I would say that, to the contrary, the Met decision to have Woolcock introduce a new staging is a sign that Doctor Atomic could be more "durable" than either Nixon or Klinghoffer. With so many "dark tensions" behind the plot line, there are any number of ways in which a director may approach the opera; and the assumption that any of Adams' operas have only "worked" by virtue of Sellars' direction strikes me as unwarranted. The greater challenge concerns what will happen to all three of Adams' operas when those who already know the story are long gone. I would hope that there will be a new generation of directors to bring meaningful staging to these works, just as this past season of the San Francisco Opera had provided us with meaningful insights into the affairs of both Simon Boccanegra's republican Genoa and Boris Godunov's tsarist Russia.

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