The Spectator

The Opera’s New Clothes

Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic.

The San Francisco Opera’s production of Doctor Atomic

Does this ever happen to you: You rediscover key forgotten elements in over-familiar fables that give them renewed life? Take Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

It was Julia Sheehan, wife of filmmaker Errol Morris and co-producer of his latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, who reminded me about an aspect of this fable I’d forgotten. I was having dinner with them and their writer son, Hamilton, and describing how the experience I’d had the night before, at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Doctor Atomic, had left me deeply shaken. But in the wrong way.

First produced in 2005, Doctor Atomic is an English-language opera about nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first test of the atomic bomb he and his scientific team had assembled at Los Alamos in 1945. It was the test that would decide whether the bomb was ready to be dropped on Japan. And how destructive the device—until then just a theoretical construct—would be.

I’d felt a keen sense of anticipation heading up to Lincoln Center for the opening. However unconventional an operatic subject, the Los Alamos test, and the test it represented for Oppenheimer’s conflicted conscience, was a moment that merited the attention of high art. Oppenheimer, our Faust! The man who turned the equations of the theoretical physicists—like Faust’s arcane devil-raising spells—into the weapon that changed the world and that may still be the instrument of its destruction, our Götterdämmerung.

Since I had recently been to Hiroshima and am working on a book about the new face of nuclear warfare, I’d been thinking about the nuclear version of the Faustian dilemma. Especially about the phenomenon of ineradicability. Faust signs his contract with the devil—in which he agrees to give Lucifer his soul when he dies in return for being granted all earthly wishes—with a pen dipped in his own blood. But, predictably, when it comes time to carry out his part of the bargain and descend to hell, Faust cries out for a reprieve, for divine mercy.

At the end of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, when Faust’s ticket to hell is about to be punched, he cries out:

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul …

It is one of the most heart-rending pleas in literature. But no mercy is forthcoming. Faust offers to burn his books in exchange for divine mercy, because his lust for knowledge—here’s the Oppenheimer parallel—the knowledge he thought the devil could bestow on him was the reason he sold his soul.

It’s too late. Books can be burned, but information cannot be destroyed. Similarly, it’s too late for us. Nuclear bombs can be banned, but the knowledge—the equations—required to remake them cannot be eradicated. Oppenheimer was among the first to realize this. Once the spells for conjuring up the nuclear devil had been written down, they could be erased but not eliminated, deleted but not destroyed. They had entered the world and the world had entered hell.

Exciting stuff, then: Faust, Oppenheimer.

What material for transformation into tragic operatic art! Or so one would think, until one actually sees Doctor Atomic or, as I think of it now, the Emperor’s New Opera.

There is some lack of clarity in the program about the opera’s authors; it was conceived by John Adams (composer of the previous contemporary-history operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, about the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jew by Palestinian terrorists) and produced for the Met by Penny Woolcock. But the libretto has largely been “written,” if that’s a verb you can apply to this text, by theater and opera director Peter Sellars, who has compiled an assemblage of quotes from books and documents interspersed with the work of noted poets and dialogue of provenance uncertain to me.

Adams and Sellars have chosen to focus on the days before the first Los Alamos test, less than a month before the bomb was used on Hiroshima. And on the conflicts among—and within—the atomic scientists assembled by Oppenheimer.

I was expecting something powerful and sophisticated. And the music and the sets couldn’t have been more effectively dramatic.

But the libretto, the words … They were pedestrian, speechifying, and painfully simplistic (when not embarrassingly schlocky as in the “love scenes”). Yes, it’s true, opera librettos comprise their own genre. Opera lyrics are not poetry. But these ones suffer in particular from the contrast between the pretentious grandiosity of operatic treatment and the actual, disappointing content. And “singing” relentlessly dull prose does not raise it to the level of art. Instead it makes everything sound—forgive me—bombastic.

Imagine, if you will, starting at the top of this column and “singing” it, intoning it with a tuneless, stentorian, pompous affect.

Come on, try! Give it your best mock operatic treatment:

Does this ever happen to you:
You discover key forgotten elements
In over familiar fables …

Now imagine these (admittedly pedestrian) words being performed on what looks like a multimillion-dollar set by a male chorus making dreadfully hammy gestures at one another?

No, that still doesn’t capture it. To appreciate the bad poetry of this libretto, you must see how it veers from the utterly pedestrian—

[Deep operatic voice] Well how do you feel?
[Less deep operatic voice] Well, pretty excited.

—to the consciously “poetic.” Not merely when the libretto uses actual poetry taken from Donne and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser, but when it give us lines like:

The hackneyed light of evening
Quarrels with the bulbs …

Who or what is being “hackneyed” here? Sellars does not make it clear in his libretto what—if anything—he wrote and what he “appropriated.” But clearly he has a career as a curator of bad poetry. His “appropriations” sound fake-profound when not merely ridiculous (the way they might not sound in context). Even Donne’s “Holy Sonnet,” which is magnificent, is mangled.

I found myself sitting stunned in the well-dressed opening-night crowd. Rarely an operagoer myself (I prefer poetry and drama without orchestral distractions), I’d nonetheless always respected operagoers for what I presumed to be their sophisticated taste. What amazed me was the respectful, reverent, awed look on the faces of the crowd around me. I could glimpse them most clearly when the lights came up for intermission.

Virtually all of the other faces in the audience had this somber, awed, this-is-important-art-we-are-witnessing look. A look of suffering: “We are weighed down by the terrible profundity of it all. We’re in the Metropolitan Opera, for God’s sake. This thing must be profound!”

But then I recalled these lines from the “love scene” between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty:

… only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love …

I’m sorry to have to say it, but there are an abundance of lyrics like this in the libretto, which made Doctor Atomic begin to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera. (And, yes, I get it: “Splitting the skull” is like splitting the atom! Stop cringing; it’s literary! No, sorry: It’s ludicrous.)

I have rarely felt so alone as I felt at that intermission. I felt like the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Do words not matter in opera? It’s not something I’d thought about, because opera is so often in a foreign language, which discourages close reading. But I began to wonder whether opera follows different rules: Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? Do opera buffs believe words don’t need to be well-chosen but are elevated to poetic heights merely by the sonorities, or snore-ities, that they are “sung” to? In Europe, they boo lustily at badly sung arias. What is one to do in America at offensively trivializing words?

In any case, the next evening as I was talking about my “Emperor’s New Clothes” feeling, Julia Sheehan told me she’d recently reread the original Hans Christian Andersen fable and found an aspect of it that she (and I) had forgotten.

She’d always wondered, she said, why everyone in the fable went along with the gag and no one but the little boy spoke up and said the emperor was naked.

Well, I said, you know, conformity, peer pressure, fear of punishment, right?

Turns out there was another element: In the Andersen version, everyone was told ahead of time that the emperor’s new costume was so radical and different that stupid people wouldn’t even be able to see it. And nobody wanted to be considered stupid. Which reminded me of a feeling I often have at overhyped Broadway dramas about “important” subjects: The applause you hear at the end is the audience applauding itself. Just for being there at what they’ve been told is such an important artistic event. Stupid people wouldn’t understand.

That had to be it! With the entire apparatus of cultural capital supporting the idea that it was important and profound and thus good to be there in the luxuriant rosy glow of the nation’s premier opera house, their assumptions cushioned by the Met’s velvet seats, how could one dissent? If you didn’t think you were witnessing greatness, you marked yourself as mentally challenged.

What was fascinating was that three of New York City’s best critics carefully seemed to avoid a critique of the words. Yes, the libretto was some kind of verbal assemblage. But does that mean its aural effect is more important than its oral content? On a subject like this, the moral coherence of the words—or lack thereof—seems a worthy subject for review. Instead, perhaps understandably given the incoherence of the assemblage, the critics focused their attention on the music, which I, too, found powerful. But they didn’t seem bothered by the emptiness of the words. Do words not affect how an opera is judged?

In New York magazine we are told the libretto mixes “leaden lingo” and “opaque poetry,” but somehow that doesn’t matter because the music and sets are so good. The New York Times critic strenuously praised just about everything in the opera while artfully avoiding any explicit reference to the words. The New Yorker mostly avoids the subject, saying “purely as an experience in sound, the Met’s Atomic was a triumph.” He must be talking about the sound, not the words, when he refers to the “skull-splitting” duet as “sumptuous.” And the sapient Clive Barnes made the contradiction most explicit when he called the opera “terrific” but admitted that the libretto was “dull.” “Terrific” and “dull.” Sorry, they don’t go together. It’s as if the critics felt the music was all that mattered or wanted so badly to praise the opera for its “daring” and profound subject matter that they found ways to minimize the emptiness of its actual verbal content. Isn’t opera meant to aspire to a fusion of greatness of words and music, not to have one come limping behind the other in the dusk? I wonder whether this acceptance of verbal mediocrity is common. I find it puzzling.

But did the audience take the words seriously? Split my skull and tickle my brains with love, but I think they did! After all, you got relevance, nuclear doom, the Faustian dilemma. One-stop shopping for thematic richness. But poetry is more than thematically serious speech set up in stanza form. A libretto is not a poem but it is at least—theoretically—aesthetically elevated speech.

Sadly, what you didn’t have was humanity: Who wouldn’t give anything for a brilliant artist trying to imagine what was going through Oppenheimer’s head at such a time? But the operatic mode distances and dehumanizes those bombastically announcing their inner thoughts. Thus ludicrous “love scenes” are required to humanize him. Instead, they merely make him sound foolish:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!

He hears a lot in her noisy hair, he goes on to tell us.

But it was avant-garde! Difficult! Maybe dangerous. After all, it took defiant stands such as “nuclear bombs are bad.” One almost expected to hear, “You can’t hold children with nuclear arms” and other dorm-room poster sentiments. Perhaps my impression is unfairly skewed because I had just been rereading Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic”—his essay about New York’s rich and chic toasting the Black Panthers and listening intently to praise of cop-killing revolution in Leonard Bernstein’s operatically grand apartment—in the New York Magazine 40th-anniversary anthology, New York Stories. (The book also includes my contribution, “Sid Vicious and Nauseating Nancy: A Love Story.” Now there’s an opera!)

The sense of self-satisfaction in the audience was almost as palpable as that among Wolfe’s Panther Party participants. Except the notion of what was radical (nuclear bombs: bad!) was less contrarian than the Panthers’ (“pick up the gun,” not “put down the bomb”). Nonetheless it wasn’t The Marriage of Figaro, right? It was heavy. (Well heavy-handed.)

And yet Doctor Atomic is one more sign of my thesis that nuclear war awareness has risen a quantum level, that we are witnessing the “return of the repressed,” all the more well-timed with events in Georgia and the continuing threat represented by Pakistan and other regional flashpoints that make nuclear war (not merely nuclear terrorism) a real possibility once again. Demonstrating that it was, like Faust’s signature, ineradicable. Perhaps bad art that calls attention to these developments is better than no art at all.

Still, bad art, even if it doesn’t kill, hurts. At the intermission, I must confess, a combination of physical and metaphysical pain overtook me, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t face not just the words but the apparent contempt for words displayed. And so I decided to leave. I didn’t go to review the opera, anyway, and I am not the type to boo lustily (wish I were), though if I’d stayed to the end there was a danger I might have. I decided to limit my critique to the words as seen in the printed libretto, since nobody else seemed to care about them.

To my amazement, the libretto was even worse than I imagined. Long-winded exposition, pages and pages devoted to debate over the weather conditions before the test, almost more than to the morality of the bomb. Ostentatiously tedious subjects like Los Alamos’ project director General Groves’ dietary concerns (the banality of evil? no, more like the banality of banality) juxtaposed with thunder and lightning and other super-duper hypermelodramatic “mounting tension” special effects. There’s also an extremely wise Native American nurse—is there any other kind?—who recognizes ancient truths the scientists cannot comprehend and sings something called—I swear—”The Cloud-Flower Lullaby.”

For me, the breaking point may have been the segment of the libretto most celebrated by critics, the appropriation of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet About the Trinity” (“Batter my heart, three-personed God …”). I found the attempt to “enhance” it by unnecessarily repeating words in its sung version evidence of a fundamental lack of understanding of the poem, the mechanics of which are as intricate as the internal dynamics of a nuclear chain reaction. Still, to top it all off, nothing matches the nuclear insipidity of the composer’s self-congratulatory description of the opera’s finale in the Playbill.

Consider how John Adams tells us to interpret his climax: First, he admits that “no operatic evocation of an atomic bomb could go head to head with the dazzling effects available to a Hollywood director …” (Which slyly neglects the fact that you don’t need a Hollywood director—actual horrifying footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki are available and could, in fact “go head to head” with anything an opera designer substituted to show off his “creativity.”)

Instead, he tells us: “Ultimately I chose to create an extended orchestral countdown. … At the high point of this countdown, with the chorus singing frantic wordless exclamations, the entire cast takes cover, lying prone on the stage, staring straight into the eyes of the audience. As the tape recorded voice of a Japanese woman repeatedly asking for a glass of water plays in the distance, the audience gradually realizes that they themselves are the bomb” (italics mine).

No, I didn’t experience this moment in the theater. But come on. This collective guilt ploy wasn’t convincing when Mick Jagger tried it ages ago in “Sympathy for the Devil”—Lucifer “shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys?’/ When after all, it was you and me”—and it doesn’t make sense here, either.

If we, the audience members, are the bomb, we’re also the planes and the grenades and the bullets of conventional warfare. So we should be ashamed for having fought World War II? Is this a Nicholson Baker pacifist argument?

It is certainly an oversimplification of Oppenheimer’s moral dilemma, which is reduced to: Do I want to succeed in building a bomb that could be used to kill 100,000 people at a time, or is that bad?

I’ll take bad for the win.

There has been endless postwar debate about whether the deeply divided Japanese government and military would have surrendered without a fight absent the bomb. A fight meaning a doomed but bloody resistance to an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, which both sides were gearing up for before the two bombs were dropped and the surrender was sealed.

It’s easy now to say that the bomb was unnecessary. But Oppenheimer’s moral equations were different at the time; he had to act on what he knew, and the word was that 1 million American combatants would die in an invasion of the home islands of Japan, as would an equal number of Japanese combatants, in addition to an inestimable number of Japanese noncombatants as well. We had already killed somewhere close to 100,000 Japanese civilians in a single night in the firebomb raids on Tokyo. Anything that brought that war crime-level slaughter to an end sooner could be counted, if not a blessing, then a welcome surcease.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed more than 100,000 quickly and an untold number slowly. How does a mathematically inclined scientist like Oppenheimer do the moral equation: 100,000 versus millions, but 100,000 in a new horrible way that would change the world—although how, he could not know.

It doesn’t help to reduce the tragic dimensions of his choice to dorm-room-poster simplicity. Imagine the agony and complexity of what must have been Oppenheimer’s inner dialogue. A genuine challenge for a serious rather than simplistic historian, novelist—or opera-maker. There is something profound about the moment: A bright line was crossed for the first time; the descent into a fresh hell begun. And I probably come down on the side that says Bad Art that brings attention to the question, however clumsily, is better than no art. But that doesn’t mean I have to suffer through it.

I guess it’s a kind of Faustian bargain. One welcomes the idea of re-examination of the beginning of the Atomic Age as another seems to be dawning, but painful pretensions to moral seriousness given “weight” with lots of doomy music is—like the equations for nuclear fission or the vision of a grossly fat, naked emperor—tragically ineradicable.