18 Nov 2008
Doctor Atomic and Arjuna’s Dilemma
As Tom Stoppard put it, “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”
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As Tom Stoppard put it, “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”
I thought of this during one of the many patches in John Adams’s new opera, Doctor Atomic, when nothing much was going on and there was plenty of time for gathering wool. But the particular buildup of suspense I reflected on was Mozart’s, in the Act I finale of his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. Sesto (you may remember) has set fire to the Capitol and stabbed the emperor, his great friend, at the request of the snubbed Vitellia – who has changed her mind, but too late. The orchestra depicts the rising flames of the catastrophe, aided by the chorus. The chorus sings no words, only “Ah!,” a cry of horror, in various tones – we may, perhaps, assume their feelings are too shocked for words, or that the distance and the flames are turning their words into undifferentiated noise. In the foreground, Sesto is cursing himself for his hideous deed. If we have read the synopsis, we know that in fact he has slain the wrong man, and Emperor Titus is just fine (and will remain clement). No matter – the alarm of the crowd, the insanity of the act, the emotions of the evildoer occupy our thoughts. The music rises and falls, and we are at the edge of our seats: what will happen next?
There was very little suspense at Doctor Atomic. The bomb will be tested, it will be a success, the earth will not explode due to chain reaction, the bomb will then be dropped on Hiroshima, the war will end, the world will be shocked and uneasy. We all know that. It is up to the composer, the librettist (Peter Sellars), the director (Penny Woolcock), the conductor (Alan Gilbert), the singers to make us feel the tension of unanswered questions: what will happen next? To whom will things happen? (Because these characters stand in for us, who have been haunted by the bomb all our lives.)
They do not achieve this.
A scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
There is, in fact, a great deal of musical interest going on during Doctor Atomic – in the pit. There are genuinely intriguing sounds, developments, inspired innovations of percussion, melodies that spin and writhe and tingle. As a symphonic meditation on nuclear energy and its destructive implications, this would be an evening worth spending. Adams’s purely instrumental music is often impressive, sometimes deeply feeling. As the accompaniment for stage action and a work of vocal theater, however, Doctor Atomic let me down.
The libretto was certainly at fault – it’s very difficult to create poetic, metaphorical feeling on the grandiose level on which this work pompously and preachily insists if the words you hear remain sullenly, risibly pedestrian. Bets on the amount of radiation. Nervous but hardly profound discussions of the implications of the weapon. Pros and cons of dieting. A sonnet by John Donne that might be a step in the right direction if it had anything to do with the action, and if the setting were at all appropriate or at least appealing. (How on earth can anyone make a New Mexico sky at sunset, or during a thunderstorm, dull?) A vision from the Bhagavad Gita and a lullaby by a Native American seem designed merely to cover extra cultural bases – and the lullaby, insistently chanted to keep us mindful of the coming catastrophe (well, Native American songs often are one or two lines, repeatedly chanted) does not build tension – it gives evidence that tension is what they creators of this work would like to provide. But, words and music, they have no idea how to go about it.
A scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic with Gerald Finley (center) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
The voices are well produced, but they are deployed as electronic instruments might be: as notes on a page, not as instruments of emotional utility. Everyone in this opera is ordinary but no one is human. Even the gods of Wagner and Gluck get to be human. (I am told Gerard Finley’s personal agonizing, as Oppenheimer, was poignant on screen, but in the house, mediated by microphone, it made very little effect. Sasha Cook sounded good, but whether her character, Kitty Oppenheimer, was agonized by her marriage or the bomb or wondering what to pay the babysitter was not apparent from her vocalises.)
The staging is certainly at fault – like the libretto, it harps on the inanity of the human activity that led to such profound consequences, without illuminating either one. If you’re going to symbolize world-catastrophe, you have to make it personal, but Sellars and Adams cannot make their inventions live. They can’t even make them explode. Oh for a Mozart. No, there aren’t many Mozarts – oh for a Ponchielli or a Meyerbeer, journeymen who knew how the machine worked, how to put catastrophe on stage, how to make it personal and real to a large, disparate audience. How about a hunchbacked scientist who invents a bomb out of vendetta on his society and discovers too late that it has torn the skin off his own beloved daughter? That might be an opera. If you could find a Verdi to compose it.
Instead we get the Oppenheimers’ marital problems, a failure to communicate, though thanks to the sound system, heaven knows they are loud enough. This scientist represents this argument, that scientist represents another one, and none of them are either human or archetypal enough to be superhuman. Just cardboard. One could forgive that if their music was interesting, but the vocal lines are uniformly un.
At the Met last spring, Satyagraha, with its diorama staging and intentionally incomprehensible libretto (in Sanskrit), was a vocal drama of real excitement and beauty, with metaphorical actions giving access to the creators’ meditations on significant philosophical questions. There was no suspense in Doctor Atomic, and nothing in the debate around the atomic bomb was brought to life in it.
Arjuna’s Dilemma is another recent opera based, in part, on the text known as the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous (and philosophical) episode from the Mahabharata, the longest epic ever composed. With Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic, this is the third opera I’ve seen this year that drew on the Gita – which has become the Orlando Furioso of modern opera, as the Gita itself and its characters grow as familiar to opera-goers as Ariosto’s characters were to music lovers of Handel and Vivaldi’s day.
Badal Roy on tablas (foreground) and John Kelly as Krishna (center) from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]
In the Gita, Prince Arjuna, driven (with his four brothers) from their kingdom by some sneaky cousins, is about to take part in a murderous battle with the usurpers, and has doubts about the whole thing – killing, being killed, slaying all those pals he used to hang with, spreading mayhem through the countryside and no doubt into the heart of many a widow and orphan and bereft parent. What’s it all for? His charioteer, however, assures him that life goes on (and everyone who dies will be born again anyway), that he’s just one cog in the great big wheel of life which will cease to turn if people stop to question their proper position. Of course he’s no mere charioteer – he’s none other than the god Krishna, and vouchsafes the prince a vision of the universe as symbolized by his ineffable self. (This is the bit that Oppenheimer saw in Doctor Atomic.) Arjuna, convinced and enlightened, fights on. (Where was Krishna when Achilles had his far less worthy doubts in the Iliad? – you may well wonder.)
Douglas Cuomo has turned the Gita into an opera, making use of amplified voices, Indian percussion, cellos, saxophones, a bass clarinet from the Western tradition, background film, foreground choreography, titles to translate the Sanskrit and English text, all the bells and whistles of modern opera-creation as deployed, also, by John Adams at the Met. The techno wonders are all here (in BAM’s self-consciously decrepit Harvey Theater, a credible scene of battle), and the grandeur of the presentation matches the grandeur of the conception.
But the experience of Arjuna’s Dilemma is a very different one from the experience at the Met. Partly this is a matter of length – Arjuna is about 70 minutes, no intermission – and partly this is a matter of lack of pretension. The story is a wisdom text not an action text, a central prescription for the life well-lived in Hindu terms, a revelation of the god, but one does not feel preached at, manipulated, in this work – and there is no attempt to tie the extraordinary to the mundane in the way that a troubled marriage and the quotidian concerns of the scientists totally failed to achieve in the gaudier piece.
(l-r) Anita Johnson, Bora Yoon, Suzan Hanson, Kirsten Sollek, and Barbara Rearick from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]
Most of all, Arjuna’s Dilemma has been created by a composer who trusts sound, a few fine voices and a few fine virtuoso instrumentalists, to reveal his message in the same way that the great opera composers trust the sounds will bring to us. The singers’ art (and the instrumentalists’ art) is the central focus of the work. The message is not made explicit and ordinary, humdrum, as Peter Sellars’s text did in Doctor Atomic; its meaning comes to us subtly, open to our different levels of understanding, on the beauty of the human voice, of melody working sinuously to take us into trance states while we meditate, line by line, on the brief story being told us. Tony Boutté impersonates Arjuna, dancer John Kelly (who has also choreographed the piece) plays – but Humayun Khan sings – Krishna, advising, consoling, manipulating, guiding him. Their words are taken up, repeated, sung in canon, tossed about, harmonized by a chorus of five women, and the beauty of the sounds they make expresses a message never made explicit. We draw our own moral. The instrumentalists, too, are virtuosos, and take part in the dialogue. No message goes on too long before it evolves into a new manner of presentation, giving us in this brief space some hint of the breadth of the message, the universality of it.
The piece concludes without a gimmick: they have said what they wanted to say, we have taken in what our individual senses and understanding have prepared us to take. A tale has been told. We have not been told what to feel. We feel for ourselves.
Arjuna’s Dilemma is a modern opera, a tale told through singing.