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The Emperors New Opera: John Adamss Doctor Atomic and the Future of Classical Music Robert Fink

UCLA
And to the most damaging charge that the culture levels at classical music, its inability to renew itself, opera gives the lie. Music must generate an expanded repertory that will arouse critics and attract audiences; opera is doing this.1 - critic Joseph Kerman, 2006 Exciting stuff, then: Faust, Oppenheimer. What material for transformation into tragic operatic art! Or so one would think, until one actually sees Doctor Atomic or, as I think of it now, the Emperors New Opera.2 - author Ron Rosenbaum, 2008

And so we have come to the end. We have come to the end, at least, of the historical narrative that, however loosely, structures this handbook. We would, of course, come to some kind of ending simply by bumping up against the present; the work whose contemporary reception I will take as my case study, John Adamss Doctor Atomic, made its New York Metropolitan Opera premiere on October 13, 2008, a mere 267 days before this sentence was written. (The piece was actually a little over three years old on that night as we shall see, the Met production was not the first but the point remains.) But there is another, more Wagnerian ending looming over a chapter like this. The story of opera at the turn of the

Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music, in Opera and the Morbidity of Music. A New York Review Collection (New York: New York Review Books, 2008), p. 15. 2 Ron Rosenbaum, The Operas New Clothes: Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic, Slate, October 24, 2008. Accessed at http://www.slate.com/id/2202878/.

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twenty-first century takes place during the gathering gloom of what seems more and more like an extended twilight of Western art music: can contemporary music-drama really escape a more general Kunstmusik-Gtterdammerung, if one is truly in the offing?3 Joseph Kerman, whose Opera as Drama set the high bar for American operatic criticism over fifty years ago, is still peppery on the subject, and openly impatient with arguments to the morbidity of classical music, which he labels a metaphor gone bad, a tired, vacuous concept that will not die.4 Kermans optimism is partly epistemological (classical music is not a unitary organism with a single lifespan, but a complex, ever-renewing negotiation among cultural elites) and partly common-sensical: casting his mind back to the threadbare operatic culture he found when he came to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s, and contrasting it with the vibrant, scrappy contemporary scene, in which dozens of small companies are busily producing historical rarities and contemporary experiments, he finds the idea that opera is dying to be absurd. In fact, for Kerman, opera, not the symphony, is the hybridized lifeline of classical music, a hardy species of musical theater whose total disappearance, unlike instrumental concert music, is inconceivable. (Opera, he says, has world history on its side.)5 Kerman, who has written thoughtfully on the idea of canon in Western art music, is well aware that much of what is presented under the rubric of opera these days has little to do with the canonical values of classical music; a lot of it is, by those standards, rubbishy stuff. (Jerry Springer: The Opera?) But, as he reminds us, it always was and a healthy thing, too. Opera has the rude vi-

The so-called death of classical music is, of course, a controversial trope. My own position on the question was staked out relatively early, in Robert Fink, Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon, American Music 16-2 (Summer 1998): 135-179. A more recent and sanguine view may be found in Lawrence Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). A very timely summary of classical music issues and data is perennially updated by journalist, consultant, and blogger Greg Sandow at http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/. A muckraking investigatory attack criminalized the death; see Norman Lebrecht, Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1997). 4 Kerman, Morbidity of Music, p. 7. 5 View opera, the bonding of music and theater, in the broadest terms (The Persians, The Play of Daniel, thirty settings of Metastasios book for La clemenza di Tito, Parsifal and Pellas, Phantom, Passion) and the spoken theater is recognized as a golden but passing phase in the long history of dramajust as the classical symphonyis a passing phase in the history of music. Kerman, Morbidity of Music, p. 19.

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tality of the amphitheater, the market fair, and the circus; it may not fit comfortably in a sober canon defined by Germanic symphonies, but it might well outlast them. One might add that opera has, at least since the rise of the classics in the early nineteenth century, also been spurned as too messy and real, too redolent of the economic, racial, and political parochialisms of its time, to provide the properly abstract (and thus transcendently universal) uplift we ought to derive from pure symphonic music. There is a line of thinking about artistic canons that sees their construction inherently predicated on the banishment of living creativity to the (dead) past; by this light, opera will survive precisely because, with a few carefully-argued exceptions (mostly German), its practitioners never really made it into the classical music canon, their well-loved works popular enough to be incorporated into vaudeville and ragtime, but not the imaginary museum of musical masterpieces.6 If one takes a longer historical view, though, the notion that opera is not classical can hardly be sustained. In the West, early seventeenth-century opera was the first secular style to challenge church music as serious public art, justifying itself by explicit recourse to the civic theater of ancient Greece (the Classics). As it spread across Europe, lyric tragedy made non-liturgical music intellectually respectable, giving vocal melody an important new job (the imitation of emotionally heightened speech), and linking the craft of musical composition to newly-revalued Classical ideals of rhetoric and ethics.7 As Kerman is well aware, for much of Western music history, composing an operatic tragedy was a serious intellectual endeavor, while instrumental music, however carefully crafted, was considered frivolous, a mere playing with sensations, as Immanuel Kant famously re-

The notion that art history (as style history) and its entailment of an authoritative canon of great works presupposes the end or death of art can be traced back to Hegel, and behind him to the founder of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann. See the excellent discussion of Winckelmanns Greece in David S. Ferris, Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 16-51. The metaphor of the imaginary musical museum is Lydia Goehrs; see The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, rev. ed. (Oxford University Press, 2007). Joseph Kermans magisterial survey of the idea of canon in musicological criticism can be found in his collection Write All These Down (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), as A Few Canonic Variations, pp. 33-50. The indispensible guide to the popular appreciation of opera in nineteenth-century America is Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). 7 For a good overview of the classicism of the Florentine Camerata and its influence on subsequent operatic aesthetics, see Richard A. Carlton, Florentine Humanism and the Birth of Opera: The Roots of Operatic Conventions, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 31-1 (June 2000): 67-78.

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marked. Sonatas and symphonies had little to do with deep thought or big ideas; they were agreeable space and time fillers, more likely to fade into the background than challenge the mind.8 Such a view may seem antique, even topsy-turvy, to devotees brought up, like many of us, on the supremacy of the German instrumental canon; but at the dawn of the post-classical era, old habits and hierarchies do reassert themselves. This truth was brought home to me one afternoon on a stalled freeway, as I turned for solace to my satellite radio receiver. I had a choice of two classical music channels: one with vocals, one without. Symphony Hall was indeed broadcasting a symphony, a rarity from the 1780s by Ignace Pleyel, who is now more noted for his later success as piano manufacturer than as the very popular orchestral composer he once was. The orderly bustle was relaxingbut, distractedly checking out my options over at Metropolitan Opera Radio, I was riveted by a snatch of bel canto, the heartrending Mad Scene (O rendetemi la speme) from Bellinis I puritani, re-broadcast from a historic 1991 live performance.9 The gorgeous voice of Edita Gruberova pulled me in; but I stayed for the whole scena, an aesthetic experience in every way more consequential, more serious and more classical, in the sense of embodying the canonic values of serious art music, than the amiable pattern-making of Haydns most talented pupil. Let us accept then that opera has two contradictory opportunities at the twilight of classical music. Thanks to its adaptability and popular touch, it might rescue, by undoing the nineteenthcenturys sacralizing turn, the tight-lipped musical canon from which it has mostly been excluded. At the same time, its dramatic intensity and emotional depth could keep the fading idea of music-asart intellectually salient in contemporary culture, even as erstwhile monuments of instrumental music fade into its soundscape as a species of high-end interior design. Some contemporary observers would explain my experience of Pleyels symphony as part of a fundamental shift in the way classical

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[Musik]blo mit Empfindungen spielt Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, II, 53. Vincenzo Bellini, I puritani, Metropolitan Opera live broadcast of 30 March 1991.

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music is consumed, marked by a proliferation in our culture of recordings that may legitimately be tagged as interior design. This argument does not necessarily exempt opera; but it does imply that popular vocal music, thanks to the old ideology of direct emotional communication by the performer, is less amenable to ambient deployment.10 Like arena rock, the grandest of opera can be quite pragmatic in the ways it compels a modicum attention from even the most distracted and selfabsorbed bystanders. (Recent musicological research accordingly reads the elaborate da capo aria forms of eighteenth-century opera seria as carefully calibrated templates for interaction rituals that presuppose an intuitive sensory familiarity with formal and semantic cues, allowing participants to tune in and out without missing the prime vertices of the event.)11 Opera as flexible interaction ritual might well outlast the rigidity of the classical music canon. On the other hand, some of the highest-profile operatic ventures in the post-classical world have foundered on a contradiction between the inclusive values of opera and the self-reflexive ideology of classical music that is not as easily resolved as Kermans prospectus might imply. Simply put, it is not possible for serious opera to save classical music without, in some sense being classical music; and if opera is to be classical music, then its sense of itself as serious can hardly escape being infected by the solipsistic ideology of the Western musical canon, in particular that most fundamental belief encompassed in the premise of Salieris famous operatic burlesque, prima la musica, e poi le parole. If, as Kerman argues, operas unquenchable, saving essence is the bond between cultivated art music and the endlessly renewable vitality of theater,12 its greatest threat is decaying fallout from the nineteenth-century explosion of absolute music. First, the music. The idea has had a long half-life,

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See Adam Krims, Music in the Design-Intensive City, in Music and Urban Geography (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 157-161. The centerpiece of Krimss discussion is a 1997 Harmonia Mundi release of Christine Schornsheim and the Akademie fr Alte Musik performing C.P.E. Bachs Concerto for organ, Wq. 34. It is precisely the type of ambient instrumental music one can hear on Sirius/XMs Symphony Hall channel at any time of day or night. For a technological, historical, and critical discussion of how barococo music came to function as aural wallpaper, see the present authors A Pox on Manfredini, in Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 169-207. 11 Martha Feldman, Opera and Sovereignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth-Century Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 42, 13. 12 Kerman, Morbidity of Music, p. 19.

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but, outside a small coterie of classical music insiders, the generally negative reception of John Adamss and Peter Sellarss Doctor Atomic shows what happens when a contemporary composer and director presume on its continued power. In one striking case, cultural journalist Ron Rosenbaum, a novice enticed into the opera house by the topicality of the subject, was so appalled by the operas abuse of language that he questioned whether English words should be set to music at all. Doctor Atomic did not justify the ways of classical music to this man; as well see, his scabrous attack revokes almost two centuries of canonic thinking, reviving anti-musical sentiments more reminiscent of London in the 1720s than of twenty-first century New York. Tossing a lifeline out to the classical music canon, it seems, is not without significant risk.

From an early age I was inspired by great composers, writers, choreographers and painters who could say something immensely important, yet also reach a lot of people. Those 19th-century giants Beethoven, Tolstoy, Dickens, Wagner, Zola - had enormous audiences...13 - composer John Adams, 2009

A cultural chain reaction The impulse to create a new serious opera on the subject of Robert J. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project did not come from John Adams, nor did it spring, like many new operatic ventures, from a desire to annex the popularity of a pre-existing movie, play, or novel. The idea occurred to Pamela Rosenberg, the ambitious general director of the San Francisco Opera, who imagined Oppenheimer as an American Faust in the Goethe mode. Evidently, she hoped to lure a famous composer back to the opera house with the promise of a commission that would engage world-historical questions, and whose dramatic armature could draw on perhaps the most powerful
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Richard Morrison. The man who put a bomb under opera. He gave us Nixon and Mao, and terrorism at sea. Now John Adams goes nuclear with Doctor Atomic. Richard Morrison meets a composer re-inventing opera. The Times of London, 14 February 2009.

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theatrical trope of modernity, the Faustian quest for ultimate knowledge.14 To choose Goethes Faust as a model for a new opera is to evoke a problematically avant-garde near-miss (Busoni) and a genuine, if slightly tacky, blockbuster (Gounod), but it also discloses a German Romantic view of serious music that leads away from the theater and back to the concert hall: most music lovers encounter the Faust story in late-romantic orchestral guise (Liszts Faust Symphony; the second half of Mahlers titanic Eighth), or at a rare concert performance of Berliozs unstageable dramatic legend, La Damnation de Faust. Arguably the most influential musical readings of Goethes Faust were the ones imposed directly onto the canonic symphonies of Beethoven by Wagner and other nineteenth-century German critics;15 it is hard to escape the notion that Rosenberg hoped to entice the man she considered the greatest composer alive, a successful orchestral composer badly burned by the critical rejection of his previous opera, back into her house by offering him a high German-speaking theme worthy of Beethovenian symphonic Sturm und Drang, a subject which would allow him to indulge his canonical ambitions on the largest possible scale while she secured an equally big premiere. Approached in early 2000, Adams demurred, saying he had no more operas in him, but eventually his desire to say something immensely important, yet also reach a lot of people made San Franciscos commission for an American Faust irresistible.16

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Matthew Gurewitsch, The opera that chooses the nuclear option, The New York Times, 25 September 2005. This outbreak of what in 1920s Germany was called Literaturoper (literature opera), where the cultural prestige of the source material is the prime guarantee of an operas seriousness, could itself be the focus of a useful synoptic essay. From the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Harbison, The Great Gatsby) to Tennessee Williams (Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire); from Elie Kazan, who directed Streetcar, to horror auteur David Cronenberg (Howard Shore, The Fly), the subjects of recent American operas have been sold to impresarios and audiences as instant masterpieces, musical treatments of stories and characters so familiar and successful that the operas based on them couldnt miss. The fact that many of them did fail is, in its own way, reassuring. 15 Reading Beethoven symphonies, especially the Ninth, through Goethes Faust was a powerful trope of romantic musical hermeneutics. Wagner actually organized the program note for his own 1846 Dresden performances of the Ninth around key excerpts from Goethes drama. See the present authors historical discussion of the Faustian Ninth in Beethoven Antihero, in Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, Andrew DellAntonio, ed., (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 116-119. 16 Rosenbergs view of Adams is noted in Alex Ross, Countdown. John Adams and Peter Sellars create an atomic opera. The New Yorker, 3 October 2005; Adamss response to her is quoted in Gurewitsch, The opera that chooses the nuclear option. In this same interview, Adams disavowed that his work actually was the American Faust that Rosenberg wanted: I didnt want this opera to come into the world loaded with that baggage. But the trope appears, nonetheless, in almost every review

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Adams took on the commission in 2002 with his long-time operatic collaborators, director Peter Sellars and poet Alice Goodman, the creative team responsible for his breakthrough success Nixon in China (1987) and its more controversial follow-up The Death of Klinghoffer (1991).17 At some point before September of the next year, Goodman withdrew from the project for reasons not entirely clear, leaving the composer and director without a librettist. Rather than find a replacement, Adams and Sellars chose to assemble the operas text themselves from pre-existing material, as they had done with the Bible stories and political poetry that made up Adamss Nativity oratorio, El Nio (2000). (Ill have more to say about the ramifications of this decision below.) Abandoning the wide-angle view of the original American Faust, which would have followed Oppenheimer into the 1950s and his battle with Edward Teller over the hydrogen bomb, Sellars immersed himself in the historical minutiae of Los Alamos: transcripts of wartime meetings and military orders; memoirs, interviews, and letters written by the participants; detailed diagrams and photos of the spherical Gadget itself, dripping with wires, destined to be the centerpiece of the stage set; and, most sensationally, reams of newly-declassified documents from the Manhattan Project itself. The chronology of the opera shrank to just the few days before the first atomic test on July 16, 1945, and the goal became to create a documentary mosaic of journalistic immediacy within which, as The New Yorker admiringly reported, almost every line could be checked against a source. Sellarss research provided a ready stream of urgent, rat-a-tat recitative; the collaborators fashioned lyrical arias from equally authentic contemplative poetry, favoring passages from authors whose words the hyperliterate Oppenheimer habitually used in writing and conversation (Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita). The liberal use of declassified documents allowed Sellars to designate the radically pruned

of the work. See, for instance, Anthony Tommasini, Countdown to the eve of destruction, The New York Times, 2 October 2005. 17 A timeline of the first Doctor Atomic production can be found at the San Francisco Operas dedicated and exhaustive website, www.doctor-atomic.com, and I follow it here although as an official, ex post facto account, it passes over many details, of great interest to critical posterity, that must be sourced from journalistic accounts. Adams and Goodman were both listed, along with Peter Sellars and conductor Donald Runnicles, when the commission was announced to the press in December of 2002. See, for instance, Lawrence van Gelder, Footlights, The New York Times, 24 December 2002.

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story as a moral fable, even though it shied away from representing either the sin of Hiroshima or the eventual downfall of its Faustian scientific protagonists. The libretto would be the chassis of an abstract yet powerful vehicle for healing through recovered memory: And [now we] ask these artists to go into an area of such deep toxicity, and out of that bring something of beauty of lasting beauty which is why the libretto consists of classified documents that were meant to be buried alive forever. And now that very thing that President Truman was not allowed to read because the security apparatus kept it away from the President of the United States is being sung in the clear light of day by chorus and orchestrawhich again offers some hope for the world.18 The creation of a memory space around a holocaust-like event, rather than direct engagement through representational storytelling, was a change in strategy strongly validated by the 2003 Pulitzer Prize awarded to Adams for On the Transmigration of Souls. Written to commemorate the attacks of September 11, 2001, this work for chorus and orchestra avoids all but the most symbolic representation of that days events, and like Sellarss libretto for Doctor Atomic, assembles its found texts into an abstract meditation on transgression and loss. It was thus clear by 2004, as Adams began to compose, inspired by the bombast of 1950s science fiction soundtracks and the craggy modernism of Edgard Varse, that Doctor Atomic was, to put it in slightly crass terms, going to be a tough sell. Audiences would not get operatic tragedy in the full-blooded mode of Faust: they would not hear the hubristic Oppenheimer exult I am become Death, destroyer of worlds; they would not see the bomb drop on innocent civilians; they would not

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Alex Ross, Countdown. Matthew Gurewitsch, op. cit., reported a working copy of the libretto in which every line was literally footnoted. Peter Sellars remarks are from a transcript of the San Francisco Operas Doctor Atomic Workshop, 30 October 2005. He was speaking impromptu but the sentiment was not uncharacteristic. In Alex Rosss New Yorker profile, Sellars takes as his model Kenzaburo Oes novel A Personal Matter, in which the word Hiroshima occurs once. (The same is true of Doctor Atomic.) Sellars implies that a documentary-collage style is uniquely suited to subjects like Hiroshima and the Holocaust because the bathetic failure of representational artifice is an unacceptable risk. This allergy to artiness in Holocaust art is a well-worn trope (see Harold Bloom, ed., Literature of the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004) for some key literary discussions); but musicologist Amy Wlodarskis recent work on the mediation of recorded Holocaust survivor accounts by Steve Reichs Different Trains shows how complex the notion of documentary authenticity in music theater can be. The inherent complexity of collaborative art and the slipperiness of concepts like the real in the minds of working artists is evidenced by the way John Adams takes precisely the opposite position in a 2008 NPR interview: Opera is a very strange art form now. When we go into the theater and the lights go down, we are in a very unreal world, and part of that unreality allows us to address subjects and themes that other art forms are really sort of unable to do in quite the same way. (Interview with Ira Flatow, 17 October 2008.)

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watch with mounting pity and terror as nemesis, in the form of Edward Teller and the twin furies of anti-communism and the arms race, drove Doctor Atomic to his final disgrace. Pamela Rosenbergs American Faust was turning out as a dissonant symphonic poem harnessed to a documentary. Given the end-of-the-world subtext of atomic war, Peter Sellars imagined Doctor Atomic as a Gtterdmmerung for our generationwith nothing being a metaphor and everything being a reality. But the static, foreshortened book Sellars constructed was nothing but metaphor (and metonym): he refused on aesthetic principle to represent the moral and physical devastation of an atomic blast, a realistic theatrical coup Adams also flinched away from, agreeing that it would have been clichd on arrival. Unlike Nixon in China this opera did not archly restage iconic televised events as postmodern pastiche; nor, like The Death of Klinghoffer, would it provoke divisive battles over Palestine and anti-Semitism within the American musical intelligentsia. The last serious controversy over the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, which led to the closure of the 1994 Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, was spearheaded by the American Legion and the Air Force Association, veterans groups unlikely to be drawn into a debate over a modernist opera in which no explosions are seen, no Japanese appear, and the word Hiroshima is uttered only once, in passing, during a dry listing of possible target options. A trenchant observer once usefully summed up the history of classical concert promotion in America as the perennial struggle between commercialized puffery and quasireligious uplift; given the grim tone of Doctor Atomic, ballyhoo was not an obvious option.19

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An excellent overview which reproduces several key documents of the Enola Gay controversy and considers its implications for the practice of public history, appears in a special issue of The Journal of American History 82-3 (December 1995): 10291144. On Nixon in China as postmodern media simulation, see Peggy Kamufs brilliant deconstruction, The Replays the Thing, in Opera Through Other Eyes, ed. David J. Levin (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 79-105. For a detailed analysis of the critical reception of The Death of Klinghoffer, see the present author, Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights: Opera, Anti-Semitism, and the Politics of Representation, Cambridge Opera Journal 17-2 (July 2005): 173-213. On uplift and ballyhoo, see Joseph Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini: A Social History of American Concert Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 17-42. Interestingly, Horowitzs history puts opera in a pivotal role, mediating the two dialectically-opposed traditions of American concert life: Italian opera gravitated towards ballyhoo, German opera towards symphonic sobriety. The identification of Adams with Wagner thus marks his music as sober and uplifting. For an attempt to consider some general implications of Horowitzs analysis at the turn of the twenty-first century, see the present author, Elvis Everywhere, pp. 138-44.

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Certainly no effort or expense was spared to create an explosion of publicity, a cultural chain reaction, around Doctor Atomic; as one jaded critic noted, New operas are always big events, but the hype surrounding this one went off the scale.20 What was needed was uplift as ballyhoo, a concerted attempt to embed the premiere(s) in a general outpouring of intellectualized excitement. In San Francisco, the opera was positioned as part of an interdisciplinary consideration of history, science, morality, and aesthetics, and its launch was accompanied by a flotilla of ancillary cultural events involving the Bay Areas major universities, the San Francisco Exploratorium, the Pacific Film Archive, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Metanexus Institute, the Left Coast Ensemble, and the American Physical Society (see Table 1). The Doctor Atomic push in New York was even stronger, a veritable Manhattan Project of arts management built around a new production by Penny Woolcock, the British director who had made a controversial 2002 film of The Death of Klinghoffer. As The New Yorkers online blog admiringly noted, Peter Gelb, general director of the Met, promoted the heck out of Doctor Atomic, using foundation money to put a bevy of academic humanists, physicists, and playwrights at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in dialogue with the creative team, cast, and director of the production, veterans of the A-bomb project, political historians, and other public intellectuals at Lincoln Center. (Even the fact that the Mets conductor, Alan Gilbert, was of Japanese-American heritage was grist for the publicity mill, motivating a presentation at the Japan Society of New York, an audience one might assume would be allergic to Hiroshima-inspired hype.)21 With the release of Sellarss DVD version of the original San Francisco production of Doctor Atomic in the summer of 2008, and the Metropolitan Opera premiere that fall, Adams, who often mused in interviews on the insignificance of a contemporary classical composer in the face of the

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Steven Winn, Atomic sets off cultural chain reaction, San Francisco Chronicle, 29 September 2005; Mark Swed, An explosive premiere, Los Angeles Times, 3 October 2005. 21 Promoting the heck out of it was a phrase used in New Paths, The New Yorkers online blog, on 3 October 2008, the day before the first event. Much of the activity at CUNY was underwritten by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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mass audience of late capitalism, came as close to the ubiquity of Tolstoy or Dickens as any 21stcentury opera composer could get.22 Such an important cultural event deserved the largest possible audience, so Gelbs Metropolitan put the full force of its national media connections behind Doctor Atomic. The opera was broadcast four times over the XM/Sirius satellite radio network and streamed over the Internet from the Metropolitans website; on Saturday, November 8, a matinee performance of Doctor Atomic was simulcast in High Definition video to movie theaters in major cities around the globe. Back at Ground Zero, in a gesture that Gelb hailed as a blow struck on behalf of the democratization of art, a pair of wealthy opera patrons bought up $500,000 dollars worth of premium orchestra seats and announced they would resell them to the public for just $30.23 Call it uplift or ballyhoo no expense would be spared to spread Doctor Atomics fallout across the landscape of American arts, letters, and science. The operas public reception between 2005 and 2008 thus affords us an excellent data-set with which to test the Kerman hypothesis: could Doctor Atomic, transforming the Manhattan Project into a quasi-Faustian meditation on apocalypse, into the ultimate American myth with music by Americas most famous living composer (and the canny backing of Americas most powerful cultural institutions), justify the inheritances of nineteenth-century classical music to the educated bourgeois audience of the twenty-first century? Would the Gadget actually go off?

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I have very dark days. Being a contemporary classical composer in this particular culture is just a useless activity. I feel that what I do, even if I am one of the most performed contemporary living composers, just doesnt show on the cultural radar screen in this country. John Adams quoted in Dominic Maxwell, A legend out of his own time, The Times of London (Online), 26 January 2007. 23 Sean Michaels, Opera sponsors buy 250,000 worth of tickets, The Guardian, 9 October 2008. The Guardian was notably unimpressed by the reverse scalping, noting caustically that Karl Leichtman and Agnes Varis were very lucky to be so marvelously rich.

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Art-Science? hissed an anonymous opera-loving artist and dean at the City University of New York, when I asked if she would be going to see the Metropolitan Operas production of Doctor Atomic. Science will only dilute true art. I expect it to bomb. Ill read the review to confirm, she snapped.24

Some kind of masterpiece The San Francisco premiere of Doctor Atomic was an international cultural event, covered across the United States and Western Europe; subsequent premieres in Chicago and Amsterdam received less attention, but the New York premiere inspired another massive burst of press coverage. (See Appendix A for a listing of key notices and reviews, 2002-2009.) The overall tenor of its reception justifies David Patrick Stearnss retrospective observation that few major operas enter the world with so little critical consensus as Doctor Atomic.25 It is not that the reception didnt focus on the same aesthetic issues; in fact, collective analysis of the operas strengths and weaknesses has remained relatively consistent over the years. But except for a few unequivocal admirers who acclaimed Doctor Atomic as a total success, a twenty-first century Gesamtkunstwerk, critics could not agree on whether their admiration for Adamss music or distaste for Sellarss libretto should be decisive.26 Partisans of contemporary music, predisposed to admire Adamss development as a composer, tended to render a positive judgment on the opera as a whole. The San Francisco Chronicles Joshua Kosman, a long-time supporter, hardly hedged his bet in 2005, anointing Doctor Atomic some kind of masterpiece; Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, while noting intimations of backstage disarray, hastened to assure his readers that Make no mistake, Doctor Atomic is a magnifi-

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Talia Page, Dr. Atomic: doomed to bomb? Talking Science (blog), 21 October 2008. David Patrick Stearns, Doctor Atomic: The Mets Manhattan Project, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 October 2008. Even Alex Ross of The New Yorker, a strong supporter of the work, characterized its reception in 2006 as all over the map. (Interview with Lianne Hansen, NPR, 1 January 2006.) 26 Janos Gereben, Doctor Atomic batters heart, mind, San Diego Magazine, 1 October 2005. Mark Swed has been one of the very few critics who conspicuously praises Sellars libretto as a brilliant work in its own right. See In opera, print takes a tragic turn. Los Angeles Times, 7 December 2008.

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cent achievementIt contains music of unearthly splendor and gorgeous lushness.27 This lushness was news: Adams was lauded for definitively transcending his minimalist roots ([the] sound language is more subtle, more advanced than ever, completely authentic, and flattering to the voices; minimalism is now only a coloration), and for manipulating a post-Wagnerian orchestra and generous admixtures of dissonance to overwhelming effect: As a musical experience a sensory experience Doctor Atomic is awesome. Especially from an orchestral standpoint, its almost physical in its impact. The pit was crammed with 71 players, including a fearsome array of percussion28 But an odd disconnect shadowed this praise; although a few critics imagined the massive orchestra as a force for dramatic characterization (The apocalyptic material of Doctor Atomic has inspired [Adams] to instrumental writing of genuinely Wagnerian multiplicity, roiling with all the emotions the characters ignore, gloss over, or suppress), most responded to the radioactive power of instrumental sound for its own sake: Whole spans of the orchestral and choral music tremble with textural density. Stacked-up clusters and polytonal harmonies have stunning bite and pungency. Skittish instrumental lines come close to sounding like riffs from a serialist score When he needs to propel the music forward, Mr. Adams, true to form, creates a din of pummeling rhythms, fractured meters and jolting repeated figures: call it atomic Minimalism. Rapid caffeinated figures dart around the orchestra like hyperactive electrons. Strange, darkly glowing woodwind chords hover like a vapor. Low brass notes rattle ominously as if marking the edge of an abyss. Spacious washes of sound create a harmonic backdrop, suggesting both barren desert and wide-open possibility - with random twinkling effects from the upper woodwinds and the occasional glissando of a coyote howl. Rhythms have a way of suddenly multiplying, as if trying to jam themselves into a microscopic space. Symmetry

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Joshua Kosman, Using a trinity of unconventional drama, haunting score, and poetry, S. F. Opera confronts our ages most terrifying topic, San Francisco Chronicle, 3 October 2005; Mark Swed, An explosive premiere, Los Angeles Times, 3 October 2005. 28 Adams Klangsprache ist subtiler, avancierter denn je, ganz eigen, schmeichelt den Stimmen; ist farbig, nur noch mit minimalistischen Einsprengseln, Manuel Brug. Die Bombe ber der Wiege [The Bomb over the Cradle]: (K)ein amerikanischer Faust: Doctor Atomic von John Adams und Peter Sellars in San Francisco, Die Welt, 4 October 2005; John Fleming, Explosive opera, St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, 21 October 2005.

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is constantly obstructed and interrupted by hostile incursions from other instruments, as if a hole is ripped in the universe.29 In a telling reverse synecdoche, Adamss music refers mainly to his use of the orchestra, imagined here as a force of nature operating at the sub-atomic level; the vocal writing, with its direct link to the human story acted out on stage, does not really figure into its workings. In this vein, Alex Ross inadvertently revealed a large fissure in classical music ideology when he described Doctor Atomic just before its San Francisco premiere as a three-hour symphony of dread. In the world of the classical canon, there can be no higher praise for an opera than mistaking it for a symphony, as conductor Robert Spano confirmed in November 2008, evoking the most canonical symphonist of all as inspiration for his concert performances of Doctor Atomic with the Atlanta Symphony: The formal structures are so big that Doctor Atomic is almost Beethovenian in that way. All the small parts refer back to the big overarching idea. The structure is always right there.30

A libretto is not a program note Spano was right; Doctor Atomic is indeed very carefully put together. But, as Kerman reminds us above, the enduring cultural power of opera lies not in structural, but dramatic integrity. And as music drama, the new opera was not well received. Critics, well aware that the text was the work of a director moonlighting as a writer, attacked Sellarss literary shortcomings at every level, deploring the librettos ideological preachiness, its lack of sustained character development or structural tension, and especially its long stretches of lumpy, prosaic borrowed language. Many recoiled from the perceived banality and pretension of Sellarss lethally self-conscious anti-nuclear symbolism, in

29

Gurewitsch, Nuclear option; Tommasini, Countdown; Jeremy Eichler, An opera that hovers on threshold of the nuclear age, Boston Globe, 6 October 2005; Daniel Patrick Stearns, Heroic A-bomb opera will create fallout, The Philadelphia Enquirer, 5 October 2005. 30 Spano interviewed in Pierre Ruhe, Atomic emperor of opera. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 16 November 2008.

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which, as one exasperated critic summed it up, Motherhood = good; nuclear weapons = bad. Hey, thanks, man! (The reference is to the stage design of Act II, in which a life-size replica of the atomic device dangles menacingly over a babys crib.) Physicists and historians complained that the moral calculus was oversimplified, discounting the real human losses anticipated during an Allied invasion of Japan; Die Welt remarked acidly that, as Iraq and North Korea flirted anew with nuclear destruction, what might have been a critical report from the concert hallproved only professionally stale, percussion-peppered political correctness. (The Wall Street Journal simply suggested that Adams find another, less wooly-headed collaborator.)31 Even sympathetic critics found Sellarss libretto for Doctor Atomic strangely antitheatrical, making for an opera that is not conventionally dramatic in any way; several, noting its avoidance of stage action and the focus on issues of power and responsibility, likened the result to eighteenthcentury opera seria. (Daniel Harvey, writing in Variety, found the opera lofty, dullish and lacking in humanity.) Many found the metaphor and high-flown imagery of the collaged libretto nonoperatic, and its central characters unreadable: [Doctor Atomic] is a sort of oratorio, lacking the development of character and relationships that make a good story. Even Oppenheimer seems opaque. Structural problems were worst in the second act, a long decrescendo of action which made many reviewers impatient; waiting for the bomb to go off, at least one missed the presence of an independent librettist who could advocate for opera as drama: I wonder if Act II would be so becalmed dramaticallyif Sellars had taken up the creative writers responsibility for finding a nar-

31

banality and pretension Hugh Canning, Doctor Atomic the Sunday Times Review, The Sunday Times (online), 19 October 2008; lethally self-conscious Peter Reed, ENO delivers with a bang; Or how I learned to love an opera about a bomb, The Sunday Telegraph, 8 March 2009; motherhood vs. the bomb Tim Page, Doctor Atomic: Unleashing Powerful Forces, Washington Post, 3 October 2005; percussion-sprinkled political correctness Brug, The Bomb over the Cradle (Ein kritischer Musiktheater-Beitrag...erwies sich als professionell fade, perkussionsgewrzte politische Korrektheit); Heidi Waleson, All About the Bomb, The Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2005.

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rative dynamic that Adamss previous librettist Alice Goodman so wonderfully exercised in Nixon and Klinghoffer. 32 Nowhere was the lack of a professional hand more keenly felt than in the actual language of the operas text: had Sellars forgotten that the librettist is also a practical poet whose first job is to provide patterns of crisp, singable verse for the composer to set? True, a distinct minority liked the fact that scientific equations, bureaucratic memoranda, and weather reports were sung in grand operatic style. Alex Ross noted what he called the Gadget effect, where even the most mundane utterances took on significance in the shadow of the Bomb, while Dennis Overbye, award-winning author of the scientific romance Einstein in Love, saw Doctor Atomics singing physicists as figures of a new, secular epic: To hear the chorus of khaki-clad scientists and engineers sing of such matters is to have the gritty details of engineering and science raised to liturgy. It re-mythologized the atomic project for me in a way I had not thought possible.33 But the consensus view of Sellarss wordsmithing was strongly negative. Critics fell over each other bashing the verbal flabbiness of his libretto: the words seem like diverse quotes tastefully edited and typeset for a glossy coffee-table Manhattan Project commemoration book. Then, problematically, its set to music it is alarmingly, sometimes ludicrously intrusive, veering between extremes of technobabble opacity and the purplest of poetic hyperbole if Adamss notes dont cramp [the singers] style, Sellarss text, a

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antitheatrical Stearns, Heroic A-bomb opera; not conventionally dramatic Kosman; opera seria - Tom Sutcliffe, Doctor Atomic [in SF]. The Times of London (Online), 4 October 2005; lofty, dullish Daniel Harvey, Doctor Atomic in SF, Variety, 4 October 2005; metaphor and high-flown imagery - Andrew Clements, Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera, The Guardian, 5 October 2005; opaque Fleming, Explosive opera; lack of a librettist Sutcliffe, op. cit. It must be noted that John Adams himself was a vociferous proponent of Sellarss libretto, praising it for precisely the qualities that critics later complained were lacking: In an opera you need that personal interaction, clashes of will, strong emotions, anger, discord, love, hate the whole gamut of human intercourse. The last thing we would want would be something historically accurate but emotionally frozen, like a Victorian oratorio or some such thing. As quoted in Thomas May, The John Adams Reader (New York: Amadeus Press, 2006), p. 223. 33 gadget effect Ross, Countdown; it re-mythologized the atomic project - Dennis Overbye, Dr Atomic: unthinkable yet immortal, The New York Times, 18 October 2005.

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mix of official quotations, poetry, and waffle, often will. Even Puccini would falter over a line such as I keep in constant touch with a team of psychiatrists at Oak Ridge.34 Perhaps the most devastating appraisal came not from a professional critic, but another, younger composer. Mark Adamo, whose 1998 Little Women had been one of the very few American operas to match the genuine popular success of Adamss Nixon in China, went to see Doctor Atomic in New York; he came away bitterly disappointed, blaming the composer for letting loyalty to an old friend blind him to the fact that the collage of prose and poems he had accepted in place of a real libretto doomed the work to dramatic nullity: Obviously Sellars and Adams have worked together long and fruitfully, and collegiality should count for something; but if, as a composer, I were presented with this libretto, Id have torn it to shreds. Nothing is shaped: nothing develops; so theres nothing to compose into. For all its moment-to-moment sparkle and range, the score functions in very limited ways: either as extended scare-tremolandi for the foreboding prose scenes, or as tastefully chosen frames for Sellarss gallery of poetic sources. The composer should have demanded more from his librettist. Based on this draft, Sellars seemed more committed to an anti-dramatic method of creating a text than to exploring the story and the issues that, presumably, spurred the creation of the text to begin with. Didnt Adams hear what was missing? If he did, didnt he care? That incredulous question didnt you hear what was missing? didnt you care? sounds from Adamos pen with an insiders defensiveness; we hear a composer totally committed to sung drama, and willing to forgo a certain measure of reputation to write it, scolding his older, more famous, more symphonic colleague for not taking the practical exigencies of the form seriously enough. (I basically dont have much interest in opera, Adams once confided to Joshua Kosman. But I do think its an art form that can grapple with the deepest, most unknowable subjects.) For Adamo, who did have the interest, an opera shouldnt be a three-hour symphony composed to illustrate, rather than set, its texts. A libretto, he snapped, is not a program note.35

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verbal flabbiness Clements, 2005; diverse quotes Harvey; ludicrously intrusive Reed; even Puccini would falter Geoff Brown, Netherlands Opera: Doctor Atomic (DVD), Times of London (Online), 1 August 2008. 35 Mark Adamo, John, Atoms, www.markadamo.com/journal, 14 October 2008; Adams quoted in Joshua Kosman, S.F. Opera to premiere work by John Adams in new season Handel, Bellini also in lineup, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 January 2005.

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Do words not matter in opera? Its not something Id thought about, because opera is so often in a foreign language, which discourages close reading. But I began to wonder whether opera follows different rules: Because words are sung, do they transcend any 36 bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness?

The Spinal Tap of opera For a musicologist, this is a stunning passage, the words of a modern-day Bellini diagnosing in detail how the dramatic shortcomings of Fidelio prove that the Beethoven of the hour is just not serious about opera. Adamos dismissal might itself be dismissed as professional jealousy but much harder to ignore are the incredulous responses to Doctor Atomic from non-musical intellectuals drawn in to see it by the intimation of a capital-I Important intellectual event with ramifications far beyond the clubby world of contemporary music composition.37 For at least one of these operahouse virgins, the experience was shocking to the point of complete disillusion: I found myself sitting stunned in the well-dressed opening-night crowd. Rarely an operagoer myself (I prefer poetry and drama without orchestral distractions), Id nonetheless always respected operagoers for what I presumed to be their sophisticated taste. What amazed me was the respectful, reverent, awed look on the faces of the crowd around me. Doctor Atomic began to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera Ron Rosenbaum, long-time essayist for The Village Voice and other intellectual periodicals, and the author of two well-received books of cultural journalism (Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars), announced defiantly in the online magazine Slate that he had walked out of the Mets Doctor Atomic at intermission. Rosenbaums extended dissection of the operas failings echoes many of the critical opinions surveyed above: he found the operas dorm-room poster moralizing pretentious, and its characters opaque and wooden. (Having skipped out before the longeurs of Act II,
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Ron Rosenbaum, The operas new clothes. Steven Winn, The Bomb may be too big even for art to grasp, San Francisco Chronicle, 6 October 2005. Winns thoughtfully mixed review counterpointed Kosmans rave of the previous week.

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he did not confront the problem of the operas overall dramatic shape.) As a professional writer, he saved his harshest vitriol for Sellarss use of language, which he found, even by what he understood to be the low intellectual standard of opera librettos, pedestrian, speechifying, and [in the love scenes] embarrassingly schlocky. Its not clear from Rosenbaums furious denunciation whether he realized that some of those schlocky passages in Act I were translations of Baudelaires Fleurs du mal, or whether he read in the program that the pedestrian speechifying was assembled from the actual words of historical figures in the Los Alamos drama. But and this is where things get interesting for prognosticators about classical musics future its not likely that either point would have mattered to him. Rosenbaum, less attuned perhaps than Mark Adamo to the politics of operatic collaboration, did not complain that the libretto of Doctor Atomic was unusually amateurish and poor because no real poet or playwright had worked on it; he decided, rather, that opera librettos must always have been this amateurish and poor, and he just didnt know it. The fact that the libretto of this new work was in English, and terrible, clotted bureaucratic English at that, ripped the veil of mystification from opera itself as a dramatic form, suddenly revealed parading across the stage of Lincoln Center with no aesthetic covering for its naked absurdity: Singing relentlessly dull prose does not raise it to the level of art. Instead it makes everything soundforgive mebombastic. Imagine, if you will, starting at the top of this column and singing it, intoning it with a tuneless, stentorian, pompous affect. Come on, try! Give it your best mock operatic treatment: Does this ever happen to you: You discover key forgotten elements In over familiar fables ... Now imagine these (admittedly pedestrian) words being performed on what looks like a multimillion-dollar set by a male chorus making dreadfully hammy gestures at one another? Rosenbaum was not the only observer who found that a contemporary opera in everyday English disclosed serious literary problems with the form; this was a position taken by a number of

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non-musicians who, caught up in the intellectual hype around the premiere, felt moved to write about Doctor Atomic. New York novelist Carl Watson found the text-setting awkward (words seemed to have been stuffed into a musical phrase that was just fine without it), but admitted this might be because the foreign texts of most operas let him sidestep the enabling fiction that, in opera, the singers are actually supposed to be speaking: I have never been a fan of English-language operas, and this is because I can understand them. Opera lyrics tend to be pretty corny, even downright dumb, and they have a lot more power if they are lost without translation, becoming part of the music.38 This may seem like real philistinism but it has a long and honorable pedigree, especially in the English-speaking world. It was in 1711 that Joseph Addison famously remarked how nothing has more startled our English audience than the Italian recitativo at its first entrance upon the stage. People were wonderfully surprised to hear generals singing the word of command and ladies delivering messages in music. To a student of the Western musical canon, it is remarkable that people are once again capable of being surprised by the most well-worn convention of the classical music stage. Rosenbaums twenty-first century indictment that opera turns the trivial meaninglessly bombastic finds its clear precedent in the seventeenth-century verdict handed down by literary man Charles de SaintEvremond in a notorious letter to George Villiers, the 2nd Lord Buckingham, in 1677: There is another Thing in Operas so contrary to Nature, that I cannot be reconciled to it; and that is the singing of the whole Piece, from beginning to end, as if the Persons represented were ridiculously matchd, and had agreed to treat in Musick both the most common, and most important Affairs of Life. Is it to be imagind that a Master calls his Servant, or sends him on an errand, singing; that one Friend imparts a secret to another, singing; That Men deliberate in Council, singing; That Orders in time of Battle are given, singing; and That Men are melodiously killed with Sward and Darts? 39

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Carl Watson, A review of the opera, Dr. Atomic, A Gathering of the Tribes (blog), 21 January 2009. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 29, 3 April 1711; Saint-Evremonds notorious letter to Buckingham is discussed, along with many other apposite examples, in Edward Lippmans magisterial History of Western Musical Aesthetics (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 48ff. The adjective is Lippmans.

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We seem to have misplaced two-and-a-half centuries of musical aesthetics. Mark Adamo found the libretto of Doctor Atomic too much a literary conceit, fundamentally un-operatic; but for Rosenbaum, the once-again strange burden of the operatic, the fatal need to sing everything, forecloses any emotional insight a character drama about the atomic bomb might try to provide: Who wouldnt give anything for a brilliant artist trying to imagine what was going through Oppenheimers head at such a time? But the operatic mode distances and dehumanizes those bombastically announcing their inner thoughts. Rosenbaum went so far as to reject on literary grounds the one moment in the Adams-Sellars collaboration that had achieved general critical acclaim: Oppenheimers tense neo-Baroque aria at the end of Act I, fashioned from John Donnes Holy Sonnet 14 (Batter my heart, three persond God) in a nod to Trinity, Oppenheimers literary code name for the Alamogordo test site. Joshua Kosman thought Donnes dense poetic language inspired Adams to an equally compact setting, like the fissile core that powers a nuclear weapon (or a three-hour opera). But Rosenbaum could not get past the violence done to Donne: For me, the breaking point may have been the segment of the libretto most celebrated by critics, the appropriation of John Donnes Holy Sonnet About the Trinity (Batter my heart, three-personed God ). I found the attempt to enhance it by unnecessarily repeating words in its sung version evidence of a fundamental lack of understanding of the poem, the mechanics of which are as intricate as the internal dynamics of a nuclear chain reaction. Having also spent some time in the Yale English department, I know where Rosenbaum got his New Critical respect for the tensile strength of complex grammatical constructions, and I do see how repeating words and phrases could be understood to derail the measured rhetorical progression of Donnes elaborate poetic conceits but really, this is an aesthetic double bind whose effect is to make serious music drama well-nigh impossible. (Rosenbaum would have made an excellent opera critic for The Spectator, which almost 200 years earlier had proclaimed that nothing is capable of

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being well set to Musick, that is not Nonsense.)40 If the libretto is verbose and prosaic, then intoning its banalities is tediously absurd; if the libretto is condensed and lyrical, then the inevitable repetitions of text (did Rosenbaum think that this was a mannerism unique to Adams?) will be equally absurd, in the manner so entertainingly burlesqued by Mr. Jonathan Swift in his Cantata of 1746:

[Jonathan Swift, A Cantata, Collected Works, vol. 17, pp. 318ff]

It seems that the past isnt dead; as William Faulkner once asserted, it isnt even past. The recrudescence of seventeenth-century aesthetic positions in the postmodern present is fascinating to the musicologist, who may well experience the nave wonderment of the paleontologists faced with living dinosaurs in Michael Crichtons Jurassic Park. (Musico-aesthetic fossils come to life!) But such reactionary reception is discouraging if one is counting on new operas to throw out the lifeline to Western art music. Yes, the example of Doctor Atomic shows that opera as drama has access to a mythic register that can, given the right subject and enough money, be marketed to the educated
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fissile core Kosman, Trinity; nonsense Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 29, 21 March 1711. Close reading of the works of John Donne was foundational to the advent of New Criticism in American literary studies. Cleanth Brookss The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), one of the key New Critical texts, begins with an extended analysis of Donnes The Canonization along the lines Rosenbaum adumbrates. Brooks taught in the English department at Yale from 1947 to 1975; Rosenbaum received his B.A. in English literature from Yale in 1968, and continued briefly in the graduate program before leaving to become a full-time writer. The present author began the English major at Yale in 1979, and worked through the Holy Sonnets of John Donne in his first year, only to be seduced away to an eventual degree in Music.

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public at large; it can indeed try to be music for the man who enjoys Hamlet, to paraphrase the title of a famous mid-century musical appreciation text.41 But the recent reception of Doctor Atomic shows the riskiness of enticing new audiences unfamiliar with classical music into the theater, primed for a scintillating new drama of ideas. There is a reason no English-language Hamlet has ever held the operatic stage. Time-hallowed conventions of text and setting can appear silly, even antiintellectual to newcomers, especially in contemporary opera, where recognizable characters sing in vernacular language about still-controversial issues. Long-resolved debates about the aesthetic value of music itself may be reopened; audiences may be repulsed, not attracted by operas garish spectacle; cultural ground may be lost, rather than gained. New listeners may decline the old gift ofTweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.

Alice and my chemistry wellonly a chemist could describe that! We had major disputes, even some hard feelings with the two operas. I think some of it had to do with the fact that she was a literary person working in whats fundamentally a musical world, opera, always feeling that her value was never quite appreciated.42 - composer John Adams, 2006

Go ask Alice From all accounts, Alice Goodman was not an easy librettist to work with; she noted herself that John [Adams] is sensitive and highly strung, and I can be very disagreeable. Yet the reception of Doctor Atomic leaves one with the same burning questions that animated Mark Adamos blogging: Didnt you hear what was missing? Didnt you care? Why did Goodman walk away from the most successful collaboration in contemporary opera? Why did Adams and Sellars let her leave, and then assume, with stunning hubris, they didnt need a librettist at all? (Adamo was a little catty, but dead
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B. F. Haggin, Music for the Man who Enjoys Hamlet (New York: Knopf, 1944). Ironically, Haggins book is a little monument to the German instrumental canon, although he does make an exception for Mozarts Magic Flute. 42 John Adams interview in Thomas May, ed., The John Adams Reader (New York: Amadeus Press, 2006), p. 220.

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right to ask, Surely Alice Goodman was not the only living librettist that year. Did Tony Kushner refuse Sellarss calls?)43 Given the general dissatisfaction with the collage of found texts Adams and Sellars used in place of a libretto, it is surprising that few music journalists tried to follow up this juicy angle, especially with controversy still swirling around Goodmans work on The Death of Klinghoffer. Adams himself aggressively defended Sellars, finding dramatic cohesion in his work that few others could see: He did a brilliant job of solving the challenge. I think that the dialogue in Doctor Atomic, particularly in the first act, virtually crackles with the high energy of human interaction. Its every bit as involving and as realistic as anything Ive seen in any other opera libretto.44 Goodman herself was, admittedly, hard to track down by 2005, having married the British poet Geoffrey Hill and taken holy orders in the Church of England, which assigned her to a provincial parish in Kidderminster, deep in the rust-belt south of Birmingham. When Tom Service of The Guardian did get her on record just before the San Francisco premiere, her explanation for the failure of the Doctor Atomic collaboration was distractingly sensational: I found that the structure John and Peter had got together with me was really anti-Semitic, with Oppenheimer as the good blue-eyed Jew and Edward Teller as the bad limping one with the greasy hair, and a host of virtuous native Americans pitted against the refugee physicists out in the New Mexico desert. I couldnt see how it could be anything but deeply offensive.45 In the wake of The Death of Klinghoffer, which had been attacked by many New York critics as both offensive and anti-Semitic, this was an incendiary charge which Adams could only dismiss angrily in the same article as preposterous; it would indeed have seemed strange to those who later saw the opera, since Sellarss truncated scenario for Doctor Atomic eliminated good Jew Oppenheimers infamous betrayal by bad Jew Teller on the HUAC witness stand in 1953, at the height of the anti-Semitic anti-communist hysteria that put

43 44

Goodman quoted in Michael White, Gods opera writer, The Telegraph, 8 February 2004; Adamo, John, Atoms. As quoted in May, The John Adams Reader, p. 223. 45 Goodman quoted in Tom Service, This was the start of a new epoch in human history, The Guardian, 29 September 2005.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair. Perhaps the crescendo of hype around the new opera had brought out Goodmans disagreeable side; but her accusation of anti-Semitism in the original scenario is a distraction from the real problem, which, it seems to me, has much more to do with chauvinism, both masculine and musical, on the part of her collaborators. Many commentators found the finished operas gendered division of moral labor, where men have the power to make the Bomb, and women only the powerlessness to feel guilty about it, not only historically inaccurate (by all accounts Kitty Oppenheimer was a spouse both acute and ambitious) but dramatically shallow. It is hard to imagine the acerbic Goodman allowing the boys to get away with transposing the most retrograde aspect of Goethes Faust, its antique gender politics, into an opera about American modernity; one can only imagine her response to condescending faux-chivalry like this from Adams, in an interview just before the premiere: I use Goethes term das ewig Weibliche, the Eternal Feminine, Mr. Adams said. I think that women have a moral awareness that men have perhaps not achieved.46 Oy, gewalt. Evidently Adamss and Sellerss masculine moral awareness did not yet encompass allowing a female librettist especially this eccentric, but brilliant one who had cast aside her own career goals to become a wife, mother, and pastor to wield equal collaborative power as they determined the shape and texture of their important new stage work. But leaving Sellars out of it for a moment can we really blame Adams for treating his librettist as callously as famous composers have treated librettists just as soon they could get away with it, that is, when some operas was were allowed (provisionally) into the classical canon, with its fundamental(ist) belief in the primacy of abstract music? Rosenbaum insinuates in his review that music critics, who felt the music was all that mattered, had deliberately covered up the emptiness where Doctor Atomics libretto should have been. He had a point, given the kind of special pleading that sometimes leached through even the

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On Kitty Oppenheimer and the eternal feminine, see Daniel J. Kevles. Dr. Atomic: an opera about the moral complexities of Hiroshima. Slate, 19 October 2005; Adams is quoted in Gurewitsch, The nuclear option.

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most positive notices: A librettos success is ultimately judged by the music it inspires. And the Adams score is not just powerful, but is also completely distinctive in flavor In opera, it is music that has the last word, and in the long run it is on the music that the mythic claims of the Adams triptych will rest.47 Prima la musica, e poi le parole. The twentieth century is littered with operas doomed to irrelevance by composers who thought they no longer needed professional librettists, either because they wanted to do it all themselves (Schoenberg, Maxwell Davies), or because they were working with a literary source that could be roughed into shape by an employee, not a collaborator: The Great Gatsby is a music-driven opera in which the composer bullied the librettist as they worked together. Every choice was in favor of musical opportunities; Fitzgerald's novel was respected only insofar as it furthered the musical design.48 Of course, the repertory is still stuffed with operas from the high-canonic period of Western music history in which the librettist was little more than a factotum (a moment of silence, please, for the sufferings of Francesco Maria Piave). But return to Joseph Kermans criterion for classical music as a living culture [it] must generate an expanded repertory that will arouse critics and attract audiences and the continuing popularity of musicdriven works like Il trovatore and Tosca is hardly a convincing vital sign. John Adamss third grand opera, like its two predecessors, should have expanded the repertory in precisely the way Kerman predicted. What went wrong? In early 2004, well in advance of the publicity blitz around Doctor Atomic, an enterprising reporter traveled to Kidderminster to do a human interest story on why once-famous poet and opera librettist would step away from the international spotlight to minister to the provincial poor. The story had more to do with Alice Goodmans own life choices than with the failure of her long working relationship with Adams and Sellars

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a librettos success Stearns, Heroic A-bomb opera; in opera, music has the last word - Gurewitsch, The nuclear option. This is the opening sentence of John Harbisons composers note in the elaborate program booklet for his The Great Gatsby (2000), available online at www.schirmer.com.

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anti-Semitism was not mentioned at all but the new vicar of Kidderminster did eventually unburden herself on how her relationship with the mercurial young composer of Nixon in China had changed: John is sensitive and highly strung, and I can be very disagreeable, but he always trusted me to do what was right. We had what I would call a polyphonic collaboration where we were thinking/feeling/doing things that werent quite ad idem and didnt have to be. I wasnt there just to put Johns ideas into words. Now, I feel my role has diminished, the parameters have narrowed. And its not unconnected with the fact that John is now the most famous, most performed living composer in the worldand Im a curate in Kidderminster.49 One wonders if Adams missed Goodmans contrapuntal style of collaboration, irritating though it may have been, when the bad reviews started rolling in. Did he regret insisting on his postPulitzer Prize prerogatives as a great composer? One can hardly blame Adams himself; this is how real composers are supposed to act. They create the music, and if it is excellent music, in and of itself, thats all that matters. But the lesson of Doctor Atomic is that classical music, by itself and for itself, cannot save itself. A libretto is not a program note; an opera is not a three-hour symphony. To think it can be these things is hubris, the musical hubris engendered by the classical canon, hubris which deprived Doctor Atomic of its brilliant librettist, of its dramatic integrity, and thus of its power to make its musical core relevant outside a charmed circle of believers. Like the doomed scorpion in the folk tale, crossing the river on a turtles back, it seems that classical music still cannot not help stinging its literary mount to death, even at the cost of its own life.

What a curious creature this [Doctor Atomic Symphony] was: not opera, not really symphony. When Hindemith distilled Mathis der Maler into symphonic form he did so with concentrated force and
49

White, Gods opera writer.

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a structure of iron. Adams generated something wandering between a free-flowing fantasy and a film soundtrack CD.50

Doctor Atomic, symphony John Adams eventually turned Doctor Atomic into a free-standing symphonic work not once, but twice. The first version was premiered at the 2007 Promenade Concerts by the BBC Symphony orchestra. In four movements, it reproduced unedited generous swathes of both the Stravinsky emergency music (Alex Ross) associated with the construction of the bomb and the sensual shimmer of the extended bedroom scene in Act I, culminating in a wordless transcription of Oppenheimers Batter My Heart for solo trumpet. It is ironic, given the burden of the preceding argument, that Adams would attempt to turn his three-hour symphony of dread into an actual 45minute symphony; doubly ironic is how the same orchestral textures that had seemed so Wagnerian and symphonic in the opera now, in the guise of a real symphonic work, struck critics as unfocused and self-indulgent, more like film underscoring than Beethoven. Adams, chastened, withdrew his piece and cut it in half, eliminating the long Baudelairian adagio and whittling the discursive first movement down to a two-and-a-half minute prelude. This second Doctor Atomic Symphony is a tight, 22-minute cruise missile of ferocious orchestral virtuosity. Freed from its problematic text and portentous stage action, Doctor Atomic can now be enjoyed as pure musical kineticism, exhilarating and meaningless, one of the best rollercoaster rides in sound the classical music world has to offer. Thats no small achievement; played at high volume, David Robertsons energetic 2008 recording had me flying down the L.A. freeway, grinning and pounding the steering wheel with uncontrollable delight. But my pleasure was in a symphony, not an opera, which would seem to imply, as San Francisco critic Steven Winn argued, that in the end, Doctor Atomic may be a self-canceling concept. Cancel out the Faustian ambition of the op-

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Geoff Brown, review of Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Times of London, 23 August 2007.

Fink

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eratic mode, the drive to throw characters and plots up on stage for everyone (not just the partisans of music itself) to see-hear-feel, and what you have left isa nice symphony, noisier, more dissonant, but not fundamentally dissimilar to the abstract pattern-making of Ignaz Pleyel. Will opera save classical music, as Joseph Kerman hopes? Maybe not especially if it keeps hankering after the fading respectability of the symphony and the concert hall but it might just save itself. The canon aint over until the fat lady sings.
Marvin L. Cohen, president of the American Physical Society, has said that hundreds of years from now all that popular culture will know of [the first atomic test] could be from what happens on the stage of Doctor Atomic, the way most of us know what little we know about pre-Elizabethan England from the plays of Shakespeare. Operas are built for the ages.51

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Overbye, Dr. Atomic: unthinkable yet immortal.