Saturday, February 21, 2009


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 22nd of February 2009 at
3 - 6.40 pm

ADAMS: Doctor Atomic, an opera in two acts
The story of the members of the Manhattan Project as they deal with their conflicting political and moral dilemmas while creating the world’s first atomic bomb
Kitty Oppenheimer............. Sasha Cooke
Pasqualita.......................... Meredith Arwady
J Robert Oppenheimer....... Gerald Finley
Edward Teller.................... Richard Paul Fink
General Leslie Groves........ Eric Owens
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Alan Gilbert

There is a review, which informs us that the white sheets hanging like tents represent the mountains, and the reviewer (Vibhuti Patel) agrees with me that Oppie is magnificently sung by Gerald Finley, and Sasha Cooke as Kitty is a sexy new mezzo-soprano. You see, I have already experienced this production at the cinema.
   The allegedly minimalist music of John Adams is not of the trance-inducing mystical mantric rhythmic 'glass' kind (churned out on a barrel organ of an orchestra), but is sometimes tuneful and welcomely romantic. I have listened sympathetically to Steve Reich and Philip Glass talking sincerely about their minimalist music, but when I hear it I feel that they are unintentional con-artists, confidence tricksters. Adams did not turn me off, and the love-duet scene is amusing and beautiful.
Somewhere in the vast library that lines the walls of this large house that I inhabit is the book of the opera, Brighter than a thousand suns (Heller als tausend Sonnen), but it has eluded me for weeks, and my frantic search just now achieved nothing. Never mind. It happened in my lifetime, and the famous Australian response when the news of the bombing of Japan came through was: an atom bomb? why couldn't they drop something big?
   The big disappointment for me is the omission of my hero from this opera. I have all the books about him (one entitled GENIUS, and a movie about his love for his first wife, who died of cancer); you will find his name in the notes: Richard Feynman. (If I overlooked him somewhere, let me know.)
   The bomb is an ever-looming monster; and the military General (played by a black man, Eric Owens) is comical (worrying over his weight and demanding meteorologists who will give him good weather for the explosion); but the real villain is the insidious ubiquitous lethal cigarette (Oppie is never without it, and he died of throat cancer aged 62).
   Eventually I found the book mentioned above, by Robert Jungk (translated from German, 1958)
   Some details about the personal life of the personnel.
   Julius Robert Oppenheimer was to marry Jean Tatlock (a psychiatry student he met in 1936; a committed Communist); but in 1939 he fell passionately and mutually in love with Katharina Puening (born in Germany, now at the Plant Research Laboratory in Pasadena, and about to enter a second marriage); they were wedded in November 1940.
   General Leslie Richard Groves had only had desk jobs in the army, and this was his first active service. (He fitted W.S. Gilbert’s pattern: Stick close to your desk, and never go to sea, and ...) He published his memoirs in 1962.

One critic (James C. Taylor) thinks Dr Atomic is a “bomb”; “a bloated three-and-a-half hours” with “undramatic doodling on stage”; “Kitty is a collection of bland platitudes”; the love duet “plays like a panel discussion”; he castigates “the justly celebrated director” Peter Sellars for daring to do the libretto, when the usual librettist was available (Alice Goodman, who produced a draft for this one). 
   By contrast, another reviewer (Newsweek) feels that Adams does not disappoint: the bedroom scene is “erotically charged”.
The Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, New Mexico, June 1945
Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) and General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) are in charge of the making and testing of the atomic bomb. Germany has surrendered, but Japan is defiant; this weapon of mass destruction has to be used against civilian targets to end the war. Edward Teller and Robert Wilson are supporting a petition to President Truman. Oppie thinks the men in Washington have the information that is needed for making the hard decisions; he has told them that several bombings would be feasible.
Fact: many offspring were produced during the labours on this project.
Kitty sings a love poem by Muriel Rukeyser; Kitty was also a scientist and felt frustrated; she says “Am I in your light?” as he is working on his papers in bed; eventually he responds with a poem of Baudelaire. He goes off to his workplace, and she ponders on the problems of peace, war, and love: “Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war”.
[1.3]  The Trinity test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 15 1945
It is night and the first atomic bomb is about to be tested, but an electrical storm has burst over the site, and the bomb, on its high tower in the desert, might be struck by lightning. (Note that a substitute bomb had previously been placed in that position; it contained "normal" explosives, and it did explode when lightning hit it; hence the anxiety.)
   Frank Hubbard, the Chief Meteorologist, warns General Groves about the extreme hazards of proceeding in this weather; the General wants better weather forecasts, and in his frustration he threatens death by hanging.
   Captain Nolan from the Army Medical Corps (Jay Hunter Morris, later to become the Metropera’s new Siegfried) informs the General of the toxicity of plutonium and the horror of radiation poisoning.
   Don’t panic! From now on the General will make his own weather predictions! 
   Groves and Oppenheimer confer, and get round to the subject of the General’s girth and his prescribed daily diet of calories.
    Oppenheimer anxiously recites John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, which inspired him to name the test site “Trinity”: Batter my heart, three person’d God ... Take me to you, imprison me, for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Oppenheimer agonizing (Act 1.3):
(John Donne sonnet)
Batter my heart, three person’d God; For, you 
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe 
Shine, and seek to mend; 
Batter my heart, three person’d God; 
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new. 
Batter my heart, three person’d God; For, you 
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, treathe, knock, breathe 
Shine, and seek to mend;Batter my heart, three person’d God; 
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new. 
I, like an usurpt town, to another due, 
Labor to’admit you, but Oh, to no end, 
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d 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 Trinity test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16 1945. 
[2.1] At home, far away from the test site, Kitty Oppenheimer and her maid, Pasqualita, watch the sky for indications of the ignition; alcohol is imbibed; Kitty reflects on the situation poetically, touching on war and peace, death and resurrection; she sleeps (and dreams); Pasqualita attends to the baby (Katharine, seven months; Peter, their son, we have already met, and he will appear again later).
Interlude: Lightning over the Sangre de Christos (Blood of Christ) Mountains (Kitty  had mentioned “that fierce Judaean Innocent who risked every immortal meaning on one life”). Adams uses a rich Richardian orchestra (Wagnerian, Straussian) to depict the storm, in atmospheric music.
[2.2] Midnight. Pasqualita sings the cloud-flower lullaby to the infant: the cloud-flower blossoms, the lightning flashes, the thunder clashes, the rain comes down.
At the tower, all personnel except Wilson and Hubbard have left the area.
Wilson says: It is midnight, Jack.
Hubbard, the weather man, calls this exercise in the midst of an electric storm “a blunder of the first magnitude”.  (Actually a similar bomb containing ordinary explosives had recently been placed on the tower and it had exploded when struck by lightning!)
Wilson has had a recurring dream of falling from the tower, a long slow fall.
The scene moves back and forth. Another poetic monologue by Kitty: Horror.
Edward Teller ponders whether the bomb will ignite the atmosphere, setting off a huge chain reaction that will encircle the globe. Oppie insists that “the Gadget” will not do this.
But will this $2 bn experiment produce a dud?
Oppie makes an announcement: Prepare to fire at 5.30 am.
The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann is mentioned.
Estimates (bets!) of the force of the explosion (in tons of TNT) are made (all too low).
The epiphany of Vishnu from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita:
At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous, Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies, Terrible with fangs, O master, All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am. When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent, Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow, With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring‚ All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.
[2.4] The countdown. The rains stops, the sky clears.
A  rocket and a siren signal it is time to hide in the trenches.
The last words are (missing on our recording): Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart (Oppie). Clocks tick

Brighter than a thousand suns (Heller als tausend Sonnen) by Robert Jungk (1956, translated from German, 1958)
Now It Can Be Told by General Leslie R. Groves (1962)
The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosions, July 16, 1945 by Ferenc Morton Szasz
The Manhattan Project: A Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age by Michael B. Stoff, Jonathan F. Fanton, R. Hal Williams (1991)

STORYLINE with 16 pictures
 The notes hidden underneath the headings are all from NY Metropera archives, and they are very enlightening {but now sent into outer utter darkness}; and the pictures under Storyline are illuminating (but there are no music excerpts, only under Analysis, in words and notation on staves).

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