New York: Countdown to Dr. Atomic

Less than a week after the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, John Adams and Peter Sellars gave a brief sneak preview of their new A-bomb-creation-themed opera Dr. Atomic to a group of journalists and other music industry professionals in Manhattan. (Perhaps appropriate despite the opera’s San Francisco premiere since the A-bomb grew out of the Manhattan Project.) The SF Opera’s musical administrator Kip Cranna and general director Pamela Rosenberg, who first initiated the project, were also on hand for the discussion at Avery Fisher Hall’s Helen Hull Room, which was filled to maximum capacity.

The opera, scheduled for a ten-performance run in San Francisco beginning October 1, 2005, followed by subsequent performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and De Nederlandse Opera, has been one of the most anticipated premieres of the 2005-06 concert season, and the sense of countdown was imminent. Rehearsals have only begun two days ago and not even John Adams has been able to attend them yet.

Adams’s third opera, which has been in the making for five years, is his first return to the medium 14 years after achieving worldwide notoriety with two provocative and now seminal works, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. According to Ms. Rosenberg, it took a bit of persuading to lure Adams, whom she described as “the greatest composer alive today,” back to the world of opera. But ultimately the saga of the bomb’s conflicted inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer, which Rosenberg proposed to Adams, proved too operatic to turn down.

Sellars described recently declassified government documents, incorporated into the libretto, which might fundamentally change everyone’s perception of this world-changing event. At one point during the presentation, Adams read a passage from a 1946 book about atomic weapons quickly taken out of circulation by the FBI, gleefully adding that he had used the text for a chorus in the opera.

What is perhaps most exciting about Dr. Atomic, however, is the music, which explores some unusual sonic terrain for the opera house.

“I always need some kind of guardian angel when I write a piece,” said Adams, who described how he was only able to tackle a project as emotionally charged as the 9/11 New York Philharmonic commission On the Transmigration of Souls by thinking of Charles Ives. For Dr. Atomic, Adams’s angel was Edgard Varèse, whom he described as the “original post-nuclear composer.” And Varèse’s unique soundworld of dense angular harmonies pervaded the MIDI-generated excerpt of the overture Adams shared with the audience.

Even more startling, however, is Adams’s use of musique concrète (although he reminded me afterwards that this technique had been in the musical vocabulary of his earliest work). Here, however, the technique resurfaces, albeit through digital sampling software rather than good old reel-to-reel cut and splice, in a remarkably authentic-sounding simulacrum of early electronic music experiments such as those by Varèse and composers of ’50s sci-fi movie scores. Adams, in fact, acknowledged that the scores of classic sci-fi films such as Them were also an important musical influence for this opera even though the narrative takes place in the 1940s. Adams said that he “wanted to honor the sensibilities of the ’50s” admitting, as someone born two years after the dropping of the bomb, that was when he was first conscious of these events as a child growing up during the Cold War.

In addition to these experiments there’s also plenty of Adams’s trademark energy as well as some traditional orchestral tone painting associated with opera. “I had more fun than Berlioz writing storm music,” he admitted with a smile.

Of course, opera, more than any other musical form, is the product of a multiplicity of creative voices as Sellars pointed out quite eloquently in his opening remarks. “It is always more than one person’s point of view and no one voice prevails.” As such, he likened it to democracy making this work as much a political statement about our own time as a reflection of events more than half a century ago. Sellars argued for the power of opera to present audiences with contradictory views.

The narrative’s metamorphosis from documentary history to the larger-than-life mythology of the operatic stage will probably be heightened by the San Francisco Opera’s decision to avoid finding look-alikes to see the roles of Oppenheimer and the other real-life characters featured in the story. In fact, Sellars went further in describing Dunya Ramicova’s costume designs, in which no two uniforms are the same for any of the military officers featured in the cast, and some of which look quite contemporary.

The events of our own time are certainly on the mind of Adams as well who pointed out that the atomic bomb was the first “weapon of mass destruction.”

A web site for Dr. Atomic features further information about the production as well as a few MIDI excerpts from the score.