(This is a reprint of something I wrote for the November 2008 issue of C.O.D)
In the event that you are unable to imagine what the love child of Schoolhouse Rock and the Barber of Seville would look like, the Met’s HD production of Dr. Atomic is rebroadcasting next week in a theater near you.
Yes, it’s the Met – as in the Metropolitan Opera, not The Mets. But just hold your horses because it’s not what you think. There are no lines like “oh Brunhilda, you’re so lovely.” Instead there are lines like “we surround the plutonium core from 32 points spaced equally around its surface….” I’m not kidding even a little bit. Do you know how totally weird it is to hear a full chorus sing that? And who knew? About the 32 points, I mean. I learned a lot about nuclear physics, let me tell you.
I also learned that you can write a libretto by plagiarizing from such diverse sources as Baudelaire, Bhagavad Gita, traditional Tewa songs and U.S. government documents. I could totally write a libretto. And imagine my surprise when I discovered that Peter Sellars had written this one! Like “The Sleeper” and “Mighty Aphrodite!” That rocks. Except that it’s Peter Sellars, not Peter Sellers. Close – but close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and atom bombs.
So. The opera opens with all these scientists standing in scientist-sized cubby holes arranged like the periodic table, or a long Hollywood Squares. They are the scientists working at the Manhattan Project Laboratory, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They look very, very smart, and they sing about things like turning matter into energy and the morality of using the bomb against Japan when Germany has already surrendered. Dr. Atomic is J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley).
The scene skips from the lab to Oppenheimer’s home, where his wife, Kitty, is not so sure all this atomicness is a good idea. The role of Kitty is sung by the very lovely Sasha Cooke. Good thing she’s lovely, because when those HD cameras go in for close-ups they are not messing around. If you are wondering if opera stars floss before performances, I am here to say it looks as if they do.
From here we go to the “Trinity” test site, at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Factoid: Oppenheimer named the site Trinity after a sonnet by John Donne. The aria at the end of the first act “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” is also based on that sonnet and was my favorite bit of music. La di da.
And then there’s an intermission, but instead of dashing right off to the restroom, we watched an interview with Gerald Finley and John Adams. Adams is the composer and he said many illuminating things about the opera which I can’t tell you because when I referred to my notes all it said was “John Adams: Olive-gold plaid jacket with pink and blue striped shirt. Am dizzy. Surely the projector is not correctly color balanced?”
Back to the Oppenheimers’ house, which is 200 miles away from Trinity. Kitty and her maid are watching the sky for the explosion in the dead of night. Kitty gets a little lit. I wonder if there was a cocktail shaker on everyone’s nightstand in the mid 1940s.
Finally, back to the test site where the explosion is scheduled for 5:30a.m., in the midst of an electrical storm. The scientists, who looked so smart in the first act, are now standing next to an atomic bomb in an electrical storm. I may not be a scientist, but this does not look like a good idea to me.
Right around this point I realize I had forgotten I was watching an opera and was all “yes but WHAT HAPPENS NOW!?!?” Even though it’s in English, it’s still subtitled, so as you read the words and watch the action you start to feel like you’re watching a particularly arty foreign film. In a language that sounds like singing. I think more languages should sound like singing. I would not be fluent in them.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends because that would be a spoiler. You will totally never guess what happens. Alright, you already know what happens, but still, it’s kind of amazing to watch. You may forget to breath for minutes at a time. Oppenheimer says it’s a two minute warning but it was the longest two minutes in opera history (including Wagner operas, which defy time and space in their ability to go on and on ad infinitum).
I saw the broadcast live at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where they’re rebroadcasting next Saturday, November 15, at 1pm. The Met HD broadcasts are also shown at Cape Cinema, in Dennis. Tickets tend to go fast, so use your computer prowess and order them online to be safe. There is absolutely no reason why we should be letting the old school opera snobs have all the fun (hi mom!).
The next opera is Damnation of Faust and you should probably go see it before I go and ruin the ending for you. Because I will. Stay tuned.
photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera