I'm getting back to my roots tonight: blogging about a new music event while waiting in the standing room at the Opera for the show to begin. Parked in a really sketchy spot by the employee lot on McAllister because of 7pm restrictions, and... My word! I do believe I've just spotted another blogger. Hello, Albert!
I've been reading with great curiosity the various reactions to Saturday night's big event. For those who are planning to see it and trying not to read too much ahead of time, you should skip the rest of the post below this photo.
I'm most amazed by the disparity in opinions about the ending of Doctor Atomic. Many reviewers and audience members I spoke to have lamented the fact that the opera doesn't end with a literal big bang to evoke the detonation of the bomb. Three hours and no explosion? Not even a big timpani strike and suddenly turning the house lights way up? Blue balls!, they seem to cry.
But as you can probably tell, my response (as well as that of my companion that evening) was much more in line with this, from Jon Anthony Carr:
One of the most striking aspects of John Adams' Doctor Atomic ... is its failure to provide an audience rendered intellectually torpid by the instant gratification of a technologically oppressive media machine with a cathartic kaboom. We are led rather through a nightmarish maze of the tortured thoughts and creeping apprehensions of the group of scientists and others assembled at Los Alamos ... , straight into a blank and unforgivingly adamantine wall constructed of the nauseating certainty of what’s to come. We know precisely how this story will end, and the knowing reminds us, as for what seems an eternity we watch Atomic’s awestruck cast belly-down and eyes turned heavenward, of our ultimate responsibility in what we are witnessing, as in a single, defining moment at the dawning of an age of unspeakable horror, our nation assumed the role of "destroyer of worlds."
I found the final 20 or 30 minutes of Doctor Atomic utterly gripping and suspenseful. Moist palms, back muscle tension, frozen legs, the whole bit. The agitated Vishnu chorus, similar in style to the "Woe Unto Them" chorus from El Niño, was chilling in the fury of its writing. There were several deceptive endings, but they only increased the tension for me. (After all, wouldn't the waiting scientists have found themselves similarly jolted with every miniscule stimulus?)
I don't know how Adams would have written a more beautiful, shocking and ultimately revealing ending than he did. After two hours or so of the bomb hanging over our heads—not just visually but aurally—it's finally, fully acknowledged in the last seconds of the opera that the crux of the drama has nothing to do with whether this particular test bomb succeeds or what its yield is. In the end, Doctor Atomic is resolutely not about the bomb; it's about death on a massive scale, wreaked on humanity by humanity.
Lisa wonders what the Japanese woman is saying. I wonder in return, does it matter? Is it not enough to perceive that woman's short phrase as a mother's last words to her child? Or a woman's last whisper to her lover? Or even a shopkeeper giving a customer change, for that matter? What's significant is not what more than 100,000 civilians were precisely saying the moment before they were immolated by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; what's significant is that they were alive, and then they were dead. Through the course of the opera there is much handwringing on the part of the characters about the morality and ethics of using an atomic bomb, but it is not until the final moment that those whose will actually suffer from these scientists' creation are given a voice, and they are thus transformed from theory to reality.
During a talk a few weeks back, Sellars and Adams were asked how they were going to represent the detonation of an atomic bomb on an opera stage. Sellars spoke, as he did in the pre-concert talk, of the explicitness in the portrayal of violence that we have become accustomed to. The example he used that day was if George Lucas filmed Oedipus Rex, there would be millions of dollars spent on fx guys working out exactly what an eyeball would look like as it was being gouged out of a skull: which millisecond it would burst, in what direction the fluids would spray, &c &c. At that point Sellars had not worked out the final staging yet, but he emphasized that whatever resulted would not be in the world of explicit realism, but expressive poetry instead.
I think it can be debated whether Sellars's staging solution was effective, though I myself found the tableau of the entire cast looking the audience in the eye (staring at one another in the mirror, really), as we all sat there in silence waiting, tremendously unsettling and powerful. But as for the music, I think Adams can only be commended for the way he composed the end of Doctor Atomic: with grace, compassion and humility.