Three Weeks to Go for Doctor Atomic

[Ed. Note: At the press luncheon for Doctor Atomic at Avery Fisher Hall last month, John Adams said that he hadn't attended any of the rehearsals yet. So we asked him if he would write his first impressions about hearing it once he did. The San Francisco Opera will give the world premiere performance of Doctor Atomic on Saturday, October 1, 2005 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Additional performances are scheduled on October 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 20, and 22.]

simulacrum of the set
A simulacrum of the set for Doctor Atomic
Image courtesy of Shuman Associates

It’s always a huge shock for me to hear my music sung for the first time. With orchestration, I don’t have so many surprises anymore. I do extremely detailed MIDI mockups now, and when I hear the first orchestra rehearsal I’m usually just pleased that it sounds better than my MIDI tape. But in the case of Doctor Atomic, I lived for nearly two years with the vocal lines being played by a clunky digital piano, so of course the first moment of hearing them sung by live human voices was both a shock and, for the most part, a pleasure. Gerry Finley, the incomparable Canadian baritone who is creating the role of Oppenheimer, did me a big favor about four months ago by going into a studio in London by himself and recording parts of his role so that I could judge how it lies for his voice and make adjustments.

When I first heard the singers, it was in a relatively small rehearsal hall, with a piano accompaniment. I thought I’d written too high for all the men! I went home very discouraged, thinking I’d have to spend the entire next month recomposing the voice parts—a true pain in the ass when you think you’re done. But, in fact, once we got out into a large space, and especially when they sang for the first time above the huge orchestra I’ve scored for, I changed my mind and realized that I’d been pretty much right all along.

It’s the eternal sin of composers either to write out of a singer’s comfort zone or, as in the case of Wagner and Berg, to challenge the singer by heavy orchestration. I’ve got those “issues” in all my stage pieces! At this point I’ve only heard one sitzprobe of Doctor Atomic, and while the orchestra is still learning the music, they tend to play everything loud. So I can’t say for sure how many problems there are. Ask me in another two weeks! One thing for sure is that I don’t like the conventional operatic bellowing, a style of singing that has evolved in part due to loud orchestration and in part due to having to fill huge halls (like this one in San Francisco) with vocal sound. I get a lot of flack from opera “purists” because I require very subtle miking of both soloists and chorus. But this allows them to sing more effortlessly and it also makes the text intelligible. I have a sound-designer, Mark Grey, who knows every note of these scores and works with a full score from a mixing board at the back of the hall. I believe strongly in the use of this technology, but unfortunately most “engineers” lack subtlety and produce a strident, coarsely amplified sound. It’s going to take another generation or two for people to understand how important this art is and learn to get it right. Only last week I read four different reviews of the UK premiere of Klinghoffer at the Edinburgh Festival, all of which complained about the clumsy sound design. Unfortunately you need a real artist at the mixing board, someone who is a musician and technician. Most opera houses don’t want to be bothered with that extra cost, so they try to get around it either by ignoring it altogether or else hiring someone who is not up to the job.

A sneak peek at Doctor Atomic‘s WMD
Photo by Will Hamilton, courtesy Shuman Associates.

When I composed the music, I didn’t stray too far from the final version that Peter Sellars had ultimately proposed for the libretto. Although, since the Doctor Atomic libretto is not the original creation of a single poet, I felt much freer about deciding what to include and what to leave out. The only major thing I had to leave out was a long phone conversation between General Groves and an Army doctor, the transcript of which Peter found among declassified documents and suggested using as a coda for the opera. The transcript of this phone conversation is pretty shocking, because it reveals that even someone as highly informed as Groves (the military commander of the Manhattan Project) did not anticipate the horrific results and slow painful death from radiation poisoning that the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were suffering a month after the attacks. Groves even suggests that the news reports of this kind of suffering coming back from these cities was “Jap propaganda.”

In the end I chose not to include this text because by the time I had finished composing the final countdown and what follows it, I felt intuitively that the dramatic and musical form was complete. To follow that with a long, verbal coda would have been very anticlimactic.

The libretto to Doctor Atomic is unique in that it is a compilation of already existing sources. It contains everything from interview transcripts with physicists and other people involved in the creation of the bomb to declassified government documents, memoirs by Edward Teller and General Groves, and even poetry by Baudelaire, John Donne, and from the Bhagavad Gita. Oppenheimer was an immensely literate scientist, and he held poetry, especially these works, dear to his heart. In fact, in the agonizingly tense hours leading up to the Trinity test shot, while other scientists relaxed by playing poker and making a betting pool on the bomb’s yield, Oppenheimer went off by himself, took out a copy of Baudelaire poetry and tried to calm himself by reading a few stanzas. (No wonder the FBI found him a deeply suspect individual!)

It’s difficult to generalize about “cuts” in a libretto. Hopefully, when working with a librettist, you can anticipate those things and thus not make the librettist feel that he or she has been violated. (I’ll never forget June Jordan’s complaint after the premiere of Ceiling/Sky in 1995 that there had been “altogether too many libretto violations in this piece!”) But musical considerations often have to do with shape and emotional dynamic, and I think a successful music theater piece lives or dies on the composer’s ability to gauge the dramatic flow. When I worked with Alice Goodman on Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, I tried my best to honor her intentions in every way possible, but I know that in the end she had difficulty understanding why I didn’t set certain things.

I think there is enough music in Doctor Atomic to serve as the basis for a symphony or some kind of “paraphrase.” I’ve already been asked by several orchestras to consider making such a piece. What seems most sensible would be to something different than a straight “suite” or “extracts,” but rather to take the material from the opera and somewhat recompose it into a symphony. I think that’s somewhat similar to what Hindemith did with his Mathis der Mahler symphony. That seems like the best way to treat this material.