September 29, 2005

New Opera Explores Birth of Atomic Bomb

LOS ANGELES -- An opera is not supposed to be over until the fat lady sings. Or, in the case of a new work being premiered this week, until an atomic bomb explodes.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams's latest opera ends with the biggest bang of all -- the detonation of the first A-bomb in the New Mexican desert in a test that changed the world.

Adams, who has a reputation for writing works "ripped from the headlines," has taken on his biggest challenge yet in "Doctor Atomic," a tale of the conflicts Manhattan Project head J. Robert Oppenheimer suffered as he oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb.

The 2-1/2-hour work premieres on Saturday at the San Francisco Opera and it has become one of the opera world's most hotly anticipated events. Adams' previous two operas -- "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer" -- stirred political controversy, especially the latter work, about the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro which outraged both Palestinian and Jewish groups.

Adams denies that he is a political composer and said in an interview, "Maybe the reason people use the term political is that I draw my stories from contemporary American life. I'm frankly surprised more people don't do that. If I were a filmmaker or novelist, I would be expected to do that."

He said he was expecting a mixed reception because many opera lovers just want to see famous singers in familiar works by Puccini, Straus, Mozart and Verdi.

"Doctor Atomic," in its capacity to challenge people to think about nuclear weapons and the potential of their destroying the planet, is definitely not "Madame Butterfly," he said.

"That's something that may be new for opera audiences. Some people greet it warmly and with great appreciation. Others roll their eyeballs and wish it would go away."


Adams, 58, who worked five years on the opera said he saw it as a chance to explore a highly charged and, well, explosive topic. "I grew up during the worst part of the cold war. My first memories as a kid certainly included images of the distinct possibility of a nuclear war with Russia and fallout shelters and rehearsals at school as to what to do if a bomb was dropped on us," he said.

"When Pamela Rosenberg, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, suggested the story to me, I realized it was something that fit hand and glove with my artistic concerns and also my personal historical concerns," he added.

The title, says Adams, who won the 2003 Pulitzer for music for his "On the Transmigration of Souls," a commemoration of those who died on September 11, is both a nod to sci-fi movies of the 1940s and, "a backdoor reference on my part to 'Doctor Faustus,"' the man who does a deal with the devil in order to obtain ultimate knowledge.

Director Peter Sellars, the composer's longtime collaborator, wrote the libretto from original sources and even has a choir singing from declassified government secrets as well as poems by Muriel Rukeyser, John Donne, Baudelaire and the Hindu spiritual text the Bhagavad Gita.

"You collect all this material and at a certain moment passages start speaking with other passages," says Sellars of the libretto. "A conversation that goes along with individual source material just takes off, and things start ricocheting and having surprising connections or counterbalances. You're always looking for yin and yang so the drama thrives on contrasts and contradictions."

The issues and concerns raised in "Doctor Atomic" are grave ones, and as with past Adams/Sellars' collaborations, the work doesn't pull any punches. The second act, which includes the 20-minute-to-zero countdown, instead of being treated in real time onstage, lasts twice as long.

"It's an amazing, amazing work of art that extracts and exacts every drop of blood," Sellars said. "It demands and pushes you past ... endurance, which is what art is supposed to do. This is just not another day at the mall. It's really asking the biggest questions and demanding very real answers."

Sellars added that the opera is scheduled to be performed in London, Tokyo, Chicago and Amsterdam after its San Francisco opening and, if it's anything like its predecessors, "Doctor Atomic" is sure to have legs.

"Maybe hairy legs," Adams quipped, "but at least legs."