Wednesday, October 19


Boom Crash Opera

Nobody would mistake me for a regular operagoer. In 1990 I went on a high school field trip to see a matinee of Die Fledermaus at the SF Opera. On a 1996 trip to New York I caught a performance of the Philip Glass opera the Voyage at the Met. And the other night I saw my third-ever "legitimate" opera performance, Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity test. I was impressed. The John Adams score was great (admittedly I'm a partisan; I think Harmonium just might be the greatest piece of music composed in my lifetime.) The starkly radioactive design of the sets, lights and costumes created an otherworldly space on the War Memorial Opera House stage. The placement of the actors' bodies on the stage reinforced the sense that humanity was at this moment perhaps more clearly than at any other, dealing with something it was simply unable to truly comprehend. The final moments of the opera were particularly breathtaking and intense.

Yet something felt missing from the experience. I'm inclined to agree with the various reviews I've found that place the blame on the libretto, which was built out of a wildly diverse selection of texts of completely different registers, including favorite poems of Oppenheimer's and declassified government documents. Such blending is not a bad concept and in fact fits with Adams's record as a "populist" composer. Except that it didn't really feel as if there was any blending, sonnets difficult to absorb on a single listen unceremoniously dumped next to transcripts of a lot of talk about the weather. As a result, the opera felt entirely too episodic, without enough consistency of threads of theme or character running through it to sustain a sense of drama. Project setbacks would be introduced and seemingly solved before the next aria. Though the music conveyed an urgency that would make me susceptible to being grabbed by the throat and pulled headfirst into the monumental ethical dilemmas inherent in this moment in history, only in a few scenes did "Doctor Atomic" approach that feeling.

Perhaps I was supposed to be already quite familiar with the poems and/or the other documents used as text, and if I had been I would have been able to comprehend how they actually subtly fit together to form a narrative line. Or perhaps narrative line was intentionally out the window, or simply boiled down to a three-hour anticipation of the inevitable detonation. But somehow I don't think an effect that deliberate was really the basis of this pastiche libretto. More likely it was a compromised consequence of Alice Goodman's sudden withdrawal as librettist shortly before its due date. Goodman's recent explanation for bowing out doesn't seem borne out by the finished product. Whether this is because her concerns about anti-Semitism in the opera's structure were overblown all along, were remedied without her participation, or were valid but undetectable to an inexperienced audience member like myself, it's a fascinating subplot, and one that I somehow doubt will come to light until a day when the various parties' own documents become declassified.

A reason why Doctor Atomic's backstage drama is so fascinating connects to the reason why I felt compelled to see the opera in the first place: the Death of Klinghoffer. It's some kind of irony (which kind probably largely depends on your political persuasions) that Goodman reused the same "anti-Semitism" label that had been applied to her last collaboration with Adams and Sellars. I only became familiar with this opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists through the Penny Woolcock film, which I first saw with a rather small Castro Theatre crowd at the 2003 SFIFF. I was incredibly moved, most-especially during the scenes where the panicked hijackers begin terrorizing the infinitely-more-frightened passengers and crew in the ship's dining room. Somehow, in the tragedy of the abrupt violence, singing feels like not only an operatic convention but a hyper-realistic effect even more appropriate than crying or shouting to convey the anguish of the situation. Woolcock's decision to shoot in a very immediate documentary style paradoxically minimized distraction from the music and text at the same time that it fleshed out details of character and setting.

This was my first time seeing an opera on film (opera really has been a big blind spot for me!) and I was as impressed by the BBC production's ambitiousness and daring as I was emotionally drained by the experience. I was disheartened to see how neglected the film was by critics, audiences, and theatre bookers that year. I can only assume that people are either scared off by the "opera" tag or the "anti-Semitic" one that has followed the Death of Klinghoffer since before its premiere nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps the opera and/or the film are indeed anti-Semitic; it's not obvious to me. I've encountered compelling arguments why it isn't, made by Adams and Woolcock on the DVD commentary track and by this guy here. I haven't yet heard a compelling case that it is though.

I've since taken a few stabs at trying to see how other opera films look next to Woolcock's. Bergman's the Magic Flute is a light confection in comparison. I didn't have the patience to watch more than the first 20 minutes of Losey's Don Giovanni on DVD. Maybe it was just my occasional Mozart allergies acting up again. Aria was an interestingly weird experiment but in an entirely different vein. Three Tales was even more interesting, weird, and different (and, like Doctor Atomic, strangely unsatisfying as a whole). I'm excited to try out the Tales of Hoffman when Criterion releases it next month, but I'm not expecting similarities between it and the Death of Klinghoffer. I'm perhaps most intrigued by Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, directed by its composer. (Should I say composed by its director?)

Anyway, what I'm trying to get around to saying is that I highly recommend cinephiles take a look at the the Death of Klinghoffer DVD, even if you've had bad experiences with opera in the past. Let me know what you think of it, if you think it's anti-Semitic or not, if there are other opera films you've seen that share its aesthetic philosophies, or if I need to wipe off my Harmonium afterglow before you'll trust a John Adams recommendation from me again.

Oh, and check out the final final few Doctor Atomic Goes Nuclear programs at the PFA. I've been remiss.

Brian, thanks for pointing to my review. Your second paragraph does a much better job than I was able to of explaining what the problem is. I'm glad to see this addressed on a non-music blog, as it seems like it's mainly musicians (myself excluded) who don't mind the dramaturgical holes.

I had no idea about this anti-Semitism business. How ludicrous.

Oh, and I'm totally with you on Harmonium. I sang it in 1988, and haven't been the same since.
Thanks, Michael! If my explanation seems particularly clear it's no doubt in part because reading your review helped me think more about in more concrete terms what while watching felt just "vaguely unsatisfying".

I find it interesting that, though I tend to like films that challenge standards and conventions of narrative (sometimes people think I'm far too forgiving of films just because they challenge convention), I fault Doctor Atomic on just those grounds. Is it because my lack of experience with Opera makes me crave an understanding of operatic conventions? Is it something inherent in medium that makes me less tolerant? Or is it that this opera in particular is just fundementally flawed, leaving aside its relationship to convention?

I haven't sung in a choir in over six years. One of these days I'd like to get back into it, and get good enough to sing with a group doing Harmonium.
It's ok to challenge standards, whether in a film, a play, an opera, or whatever. In this case, it wasn't about that so much, rather it was a matter of necessity -- possibly the only way to get the opera done, since the librettist had backed out. Unfortunately, it didn't work out very well. I think this piece is fundamentally flawed, as you put it, but for reasons other than the departure from convention. Or, to put it another way, no problem with departure from convention in theory, just please not this particular convention (i.e. - using a proper libretto).

Oh, and I don't think a person should need to have an understanding of opera conventions any more than they need an understanding of film or playwriting conventions. It either works for you or it doesn't, and if it would have worked for you if you'd read up on it, or whatever, than it isn't successful. My maybe-not-so-humble opinion. I resented a bit all the background info that seemed to be a prerequisite for "getting" Doctor Atomic.

I was interested in your take on this as a film person. I've always felt that operas should be reviewed by film or theater critics, instead of music critics, because the music is really just a component as it is in a film (granted, it obviously has more of a role in driving the drama in an opera, but still...), and music critics often don't really have that big picture. As it is, opera composers are getting away with murder.
An update more than two years later: here's my interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else, who made a documentary on the opera called Wonders are Many.
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