Doctor Atomic, opera of John Adams and Peter Sellars, European premiere in Amsterdam
The opera "Doctor Atomic" which opened in San Francisco in October 2005 finally arrived in Europe this month in collaboration with Dutch Opera House "De Netherlandse Opera." Its European premiere was timely chosen for the 60th Holland Festival, the largest arts and cultural festival in the Netherlands, coincidentally just over sixty years after the historic atomic test at Los Alamos. How the European audience react to the opera and accompanied "nuclear reaction" talks remains to be seen, at time of my writing. Sixty years later, after the demise of communism and the cold war, is mankind now free from the fear and and power of nuclear weapons post Sept 11th? Or does Doctor Atomic serve to remind us of the struggles of scientists and politicians in the events that changed history forever?
For Le Bon Journal's international readers, a brief background is in order. Home to 750,000 residents and 400,000 nearby, Amsterdam is unanimously the cultural capital of the country. The Amsterdam Music Theatre (Muziektheater) is a mere three metro stops from Amsterdam Amstel train/metro/bus station and one intercity train stop away from Utrecht and equally accessible from the Hague and other centres of population. With its multi-lane motorways and reliable public transport system, anyone in any part of the Netherlands could easily get to Amsterdam for an evening of cultural indulgence.
On the cool evening of 24th June 2007, I arrived at the Muziektheater early enough to observe the well-dressed guests streaming elegantly from the metro station at Waterlooplein to the magnificent, multi-tiered hall above it. Everyone looked important and physically fit, or were they simply the elite who could afford an evening of opera?
I considered myself lucky to securing a ticket so last-minute, with the remarks of an Amsterdam opera fanatic preying in the back of my mind. She had missed several of my concerts in favour of going to the opera because, in her words, "I can't miss the opera! They're sold out two years in advance. I'm not going to give up my subscription ticket." It was then that I concluded that operas were for serious music lovers who bothered to reserve and plan ahead, not for the spontaneous or the indecisive. Two years after her remarks, I discovered her allegation of unobtainable tickets to be entirely untrue as I sieved through the literature of the DNO, Muziektheater, and Holland Festival.
The Dutch Opera House offers last minute unsold tickets as well as discounts for seniors (over 65), youths, and those with a stage pass. [Why last minute, why discounted? - see box on left.] Such a generous ticketing policy reminded me of a Dutch concert pianist who once complained to me, "Holland is flat. No one wants to be the nail that sticks out. If there's a hill, we level it. If there's a hole, we fill it. We don't have a culture of competition." On the bright side, I'd say, the flatness also provides a level playing field for arts appreciation, affordable for all.
From row 18, I could see that the entire hall was full except for a few empty seats around me. A young man sat down at the far end, with one empty seat between us. I asked if he had something to do with the show, to which he replied, "I am the understudy for Oppenheimer." Soon after, a man with a strange haircut (front hair standing straight up) holding a writing pad and a thin white paperback approached me and asked, "Is this seat taken?"
"No, it's free," I replied, remembering that the box office had given me one of the last seats in the row for handicapped guests. I was amused that this man in white sneakers was drawn to the hardback novel in my hand.
"That looks like an interesting book," he remarked.
"Body and soul --- it's a story about a child prodigy in New York." I proudly added: "a birthday present from my piano students."
I felt then that a conversation would have followed, but I was too shy at my first Dutch opera to pry into the American's reason for being here. There were plenty of tourists, for sure, and plenty of important people. During the opera, he watched and scribbled noisily on his pad. Obviously he was a member of the opera team.
What a contrast this experience of "Doctor Atomic" was from that of Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts the previous night. I could not allow myself to fall asleep though some moments of John Adams' music could be labelled "minimalist" as was Glass' earlier monumental work. There was too much going on, too much at stake as I attempted to understand the words sung by the Dutch opera choir who narrated the opening scene, followed by recitatives of the physicists Edward Teller and J.Robert Oppenheimer. Who was who? Who said what? That was when I wished I had the row 5 ticket of the previous evening. But then, this opera was 3 hours long with one intermission whereas Music in Twelve Parts was over four hours with three intermissions.
At least the opera was in English, I reassured myself that I should be able to understand everything without the programme book or the libretto at hand. The opera was about the final days of the Manhattan Project before the testing of the first atomic bomb in the months of June and July 1945 in the Los Alamos research lab in New Mexico. After the defeat of Germany in World War II, many questions surfaced. Was such a bomb still essential to end the war in the Pacific? Was it necessary to counter the Russian threat? Would a demonstration of its powers be enough or should it actually be used? Should scientists influence political decisions?
Those questions are as relevant today: should musicians comment on societal concerns? The music weaves a story of its own. I couldn't help following the energetic conductor, Lawrence Renes commanding the show. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra sprawled the entire pit under the stage creating enormous and essential accompaniment to the unfolding story. The instrumental music alone would satisfy my thirst.
During the intermission, I asked the young man sitting near me what an understudy was. It was a dead giveaway that I knew nothing about operas and how they worked. He patiently explained that he rehearsed with the cast, the choir, and orchestra in the lead singer's absence. The set was flown over from San Francisco while the lead singers made their own way here. He further added that Amsterdam was the second place of performance and Chicago would be next.
In the foyer where champagne and wine were served, I flipped through the Dutch Opera House's publication Odeon magazine to read about the opera. There was a picture of John Adams and the American with the strange haircut who sat next to me. He was none other than Peter Sellars, the librettist, who was probably taking notes on how the next performance could be improved or tweaked. How humbled I felt to have sat next to him!
The second half opened with Katherine (Kitty) Oppenheimer (the wife) with her maid and baby daughter (Toni) asleep. They were holding, drinking, and pouring glasses of water. Was it hot in the desert? Only later in my research did I learn that she was an alcoholic and Oppenheimer was her fourth husband. Why didn't they use wine glasses and wine bottles to make this clear?
Throughout, Oppenheimer carried a cigarette which he smoked from time to time. The real Oppenheimer was much slimmer than the lead singer Gerald Finley and was known to have smoked four to five packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years until his death at age 62 of throat cancer.
The 24 hours before the atomic bomb test was a night of great uncertainty and anticipation. The weather was not conducive, and the test kept getting postponed. The ugly grey bomb trapped in twisted cables hung in mid-air --- a giant black box begging to be set off. It seemed inevitable the waiting would end with a bang --- that it would crescendo with the timpani and the brass, as any opera about a bomb should end.
The bang never happened. Instead, a broadcast of a lone female voice, without emotion but with the clarity and fluency of the Japanese equivalent of BBC cut through the orchestral coda.
"O mizu o kudasai. Kodomotachi."
At its second repeat, I recognised what it said. The first thing I learned in Japanese, what my father taught me at a restaurant and which he deemed important to know, "O mizu o kudasai" is simply a polite request for water ---- "Water, please."
Kodomo means child. Tachi is the plural of whatever it's attached to. Thus, kodomotachi means children.
After intense mental engagement with the opera, its glorious cast of hundreds, soaring arias, atonal recitatives, debates of scientific advancement and political power, science vs ethics, and outstanding symphonic music, I was suddenly caught by the reality of the Japanese broadcast.
"Water, please. The children."
I grew up in Japan. I should know what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My eyes welled up with tears. The opera had touched me in a way I had never expected.
25 June 2007
ABOUT Doctor Atomic:
Doctor Atomic, official website of San Francisco production of the opera
Three weeks to go for Doctor Atomic by John Adams, New Music Box, 9 September 2005
New opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Slate Magazine
Exploratorium: Doctor Atomic, educational site with audio commentary
The epic, tragic, operatic inside story of Doctor Atomic, Wired Magazine, 4 pages with background information
Oppenheimer as an American Faust: International Herald Tribune, 2 October 2005
Countdown to the eve of destruction, New York Times opera review, 2 October 2005
A Heroic, Ironic Parable: Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera, Philadelphia Enquirer, 5 October 2005
A Thrilling Launch: Doctor Atomic review, MV Daily
ABOUT J.Robert Oppenheimer:
J.R.Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967) by H.A. Bethe, National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs - detailed account of his contributions to science includinga full list of his publications
Oppenheimer, a life, an online centennial exhibition - a biography with pictures and bibliographical links
The Agony of Atomic Genius, by Algis Valiunas, New Atlantis, with links to books
American Prometheus preface to the book about Oppenheimer which took 25 years to research and write
Nuclear Options by Richard Rhodes, New York Times book review, 2 pages
"I am become death" the agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer, short biography by Richard Rhodes
Oppenheimer's speech to scientists at Los Alamos, 2 November 1945
J.Robert Oppenheimer important terms people, and events, Spark Notes Guide - if you get confused!
The Oppenheimer House - photos and description, Los Alamos
Hiroshima and Nagasaki remembered - a website
The Netherlands Opera official site
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra official site