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Do high art and science mix?

22 March 2009 2 Comments

On Friday night we went down to London to see the final night of the English National Opera’s run of Doctor Atomic, the new opera from John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars. The opera focuses on the days and hours leading up to first test firing of an atomic bomb at the Trinity site on 15 July 1945. The doctor of the title is J Robert Oppenheimer who guided the Manhattan Project to its successful conclusion and the drama turns around him as the lynch pin connecting scientists, engineers, the military and politicians. The title recalls the science fiction novels of the 50s and 60s as but the key reference is to Thomas Mann’s much earlier doctor, Faust.

Sellars made the intriguing choice of drawing the libretto from archival documents, memoirs, recollections and interviews. The libretto places the words of the main protagonists in their own mouths; words that are alternately moving, disturbing, and dry and technical. These literal texts are supplemented with poetry drawn from Oppenheimer’s own interest. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, apparently the source of the name of the test site, Baudelaire, and the Bhagadavad Gita (which I learnt from the programme that Oppenheimer taught himself Sanskrit to read) all play a role. The libretto places the scientists in their historical context, giving them the human motivations, misgivings, and terrors, as well as the exhultation of success and the technical genius that lead to their ultimate success. The question is, does this presentation of science and scientists in the opera hall work?

The evening starts well, with a periodic table projected onto a sheer curtain. It appears to be drawn from  textbook circa 1945, with gaps beneath cesium, below manganese, and between neodymium and samarium. The choice is clever, providing a puzzle for people with all level of scientific experience; what is it; what do the symbols mean; why are there gaps; what goes into the gaps? It also leads into the first chorus “We beleived, that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered in form…”. Unfortunately at this point things began to fall apart, the chorus and orchestra appearing to struggle with the formidable rythmic challenges that Adam’s had set them. The majority of the first half felt largely shapeless, moments of rythmic and dramatic excitement lost within large tracts of expository and largely atonal semi-recitative.

Gerald Finley and Sasha Cooke were both in magnificent voice throughout but given limited opportunities for lyrical singing. The trademark rythmic drive of Adam’s previous works seems broken to pieces throughout the first Act, the chorus is used sparingly and the orchestra rarely feeling like it is moving beyond a source of sound effects. Act 1 is redeemed however by powerful closing scene in which Oppenheimer, in the shadow of the Trinity device, sings a lyrical and despairing setting of the Donne, “Batter my heart, three person’d God”, punctuated with a driving orchestral interlude reminiscent of the more familar Adam’s of Klinhoffer and Nixon in China. The effect is shattering, leaving the audience reflective in the gap between acts, but is also dramatically puzzling. Up until now Oppenheimer has show few doubts, now suddenly he seems to be despairing.

The second half started more confidently, with both chorus and orchestra appearing to settle. The second half is better organised and touches the heights of Adams’ previous work but opportunities are missed. The chorus and orchestra again seem under utilised but more generally the opportunity for effective musical treatment seems to be missed. The centre of the second act revolves around the night before the test, and the fears of those involved; fear that it won’t work, that the stormy weather will lead to the device detonating, the fears of General Groves that the scientists will run amok, and the, largely unspoke, fear of the consequences of the now inevitable use of the bomb in warfare. During the extended build to the climax and end of the opera the leads stand spread across the front of the stage, singing in turn, but not together, expressing their separate fears and beliefs but not providing the dramatic synthesis that would link them all together. Leo Szilard’s petition to Truman is sung in the first half by Robert Wilson as part of the introduction but not used, as it might have been, as a dramatic chorus in the second half.

But the core dramatic failure lies in the choice of the test itself as the end and climax of the opera. In todays world of CGI effects and surround sound it is simply not feasible to credibly treat an atomic explosion on a theatre stage or in an orchestral treatment. The tension is built extremely effectively towards the climax but then falls flat as the whole cast stand or crouch on stage, waiting for something to happen, the orchestra simulating the countdown through regular clock like noises all going at different rates. The flash that signals the explosion itself is simply a large array of spots trained on the backdrop. The curtain drops and a recording of a woman asking for water in Japanese is played. Moving yes, dramatically satisfying? No.

We do not see the consequences of the test. We don’t see the, undoubted, exhultation of scientists achieving what they set out to do. Nor do we see their growing realisation of the consequences. We are shown in short form the human consequences of the use of the weapon but not the way this effects the people who built the weapon. Ultimately as an exploration of the inner world of Oppenheimer, Teller, and the other scientists it feels as though it falls short. Given the inability to represent the explosion itself my personal choice would have been to let the action flow on, to the party and celebration that followed, allowing the cast to drift away gradually sobering and leaving Oppenheimer finally on stage to reprise the Donne.

The Opera is moving because we know the consequences of what followed. I found it dramatically unsatifying for both structural reasons and because it did not take the full opportunity to explore the complexities of the motivations of  the scientists themselves. There are two revealing moments. In the first half, having heard the impassioned Wilson reading Leo Szilard’s petition, Oppenheimer asks Wilson how he is feeling. The answer; “pretty excited actually”, captures the tension at the heart of the scientists beautifully, the excitement and adventure of the science, and the fears and disquiet over the consequences. In the second act, Edward Teller comes on stage to announce that Fermi is taking bets as to whether the test will ignite the atmosphere. He goes on at some length as to how his calculations suggested this would happen, Oppenheimer telling him to shut up, saying that Bethe had checked the figures. Teller continues to grandstand but then agrees magnanimously that he has now revised his figures and the world will not come to an end. Humour or arrogance? Or the heady combination of both that is not an unusual characteristic amongst scientists.

These flashes of insight into the leads minds never seem to fully explored, merely occasionally exposed. Later in Act 2 Teller teases Oppenheimer and the other scientists for placing bets on explosive yields for the device much lower than they have calculated. We never find out who was right. The playful, perhaps childish, nature of the scientists is exposed but their response after the test is not dissected. What was the response of those betting when they realised they knew exactly what the yield of the device to be dropped on Hiroshima was? Were the bets paid out or abandoned in disgust? The opera draws on the Faust legend for inspiration but the drama of Faust turns on the inner conflict of the scientist and the personal consequences of the choices made, things we don’t see enough of here.

Finally there is the question of the text itself. The chorus is restricted largely to technical statements. Richard Morrison, reviewing in the Times (I don’t seem to be able to find the review in question online) said that Adams struggled to bring poetry to some of these texts. It seems to be though, that there is poetry here for the right composer. I was slightly dissappointed that Adams was not that composer. Don’t let me put you off seeing this. It is not one of the great operas but it is very good and in places very powerful. It has flaws and weaknesses but if you want to spend your life waiting for perfection you are going to need to be very patient. This is a good night at the opera and a moving drama. We just need to keep waiting for the first successful opera on a scientific subject.

We believed that
“Matter can be neither
created nor destroyed
but only altered in form.”

We believed that
“Energy can be neither
created nor destroyed
but only altered in form.”

But now we know that
energy may become matter,
and now we know that
matter may become energy
and thus be altered in form.
[….]

We surround the plutonium core
from thirty two points
spaced equally around its surface,
the thirty-two points
are the centers of the
twenty triangular faces
of an icosahedron
interwoven with the
twelve pentagonal faces
of a dodecahedron.
We squeeze the sphere.
Bring the atoms closer.
Til the subcritical mass
goes supercritical.

We disturb the stable nucleus.

From the Chorus Text, Act I Scene I, Dr Atomic, Libretto arranged by Peter Sellars from a variety of texts, copyright Boosey and Hawkes

Doc Bushwell has also reviewed Dr Atomic


  • It’s too late to see this production, anyway! I only found out about it last week, otherwise I might have gone to see it.

    Rather than a scientific subject being the problem, I wonder whether John Adams not being the right compose for any opera is the problem? But then who writes music like Rossini or Mozart nowadays? If the music had more popular appeal, at some stage it would no longer be opera – high culture – but musical theatre. This applies equally to operas on any subject, though. Maybe a better title for the post would be “Do high art and scientists mix?”

  • It’s too late to see this production, anyway! I only found out about it last week, otherwise I might have gone to see it.

    Rather than a scientific subject being the problem, I wonder whether John Adams not being the right compose for any opera is the problem? But then who writes music like Rossini or Mozart nowadays? If the music had more popular appeal, at some stage it would no longer be opera – high culture – but musical theatre. This applies equally to operas on any subject, though. Maybe a better title for the post would be “Do high art and scientists mix?”