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Alex Ross

Very well put! And Jon Anthony Carr's post is one of the best summaries of the opera I've read. I wish I'd done a little better job in my own piece explaining what the ending was and what it wasn't. The first time I listened to Adams' MIDI version, I, too, felt a bit disappointed, but after going back and listening again I realized what he was doing. I think people will adjust their expectations over time and realize this ending was in fact the most powerful one imaginable. The really chilling thing about it — and this is what I wish I'd said — is that the countdown has not ended, that it's still going on.

The Japanese woman is asking for water. I believe it's the voice of one of the Hiroshima survivors.


Sorry to jump the gun the other day, but I'm glad to find you agree on the last twenty minutes of the opera. It's one of Adams' greatest achievements, bar none. And fools like Joshua Kosman and the other critics who don't understand the pianissimo ending, well, they just don't. But it was one of the most disturbing endings for an opera I've ever heard, with "Woyzek" (which I don't care for) as the most obvious model.

Frankly, I can't wait for the recording.

M. C-

Alex, I think that's exactly right. The ending is so disturbing because of the lack of finality. The detonation of the bomb at the end of the countdown is not the end of anything. The drama is just beginning.

Mike, I'm always relieved when we agree! :) Echoing your earlier comment, Mme C-, my companion Saturday night, called the ending one of the most powerful pieces of theater she's ever seen/heard in her storied career.

Lisa Hirsch

Hmm, well, I'll see what I think of that ending when I see it again. "Uh, what happened?" was my major reaction, because I thought the progress of the countdown was unclear and the Vishnu chorus was the explosion. I'm not saying a quiet ending can't work. It was not clear to me that the work was extending past the moment of the Trinity explosion.

If a composer of Adams's caliber is losing a lot of experienced listeners, well, maybe there is a problem. Or maybe I am a fool, of course.

Regarding the whispered words, sure, I think it matters. That was one of the devices extending the time frame past Trinity. The words effectively became part of the libretto and thus ought to have been supertitled. (Are they noted someplace in the program? I should check.)

Lisa Hirsch

I should add that, of course, the problem may be mine (and I may not be a fool). I am not notably accurate in reading certain kinds of subtle prose. For me to get Jane Austen, for example, I either have to hear the work read out loud or I have to see a film first. There are two reasons for this: her wit goes over my head on the page because my internal ear can't reproduce it accurately, and I need more visuals to hang my internal eye on than she provides. (There isn't much description of the physical in her work.)

This is more a style mismatch than anything else; I'm not a bad reader and (obviously) Austen is not a bad writer.


Not to change the subject too much, but am I the only one who found the staging/direction disappointing? The music was powerful and beautiful and evocative, and the libretto was gorgeous and the found text used to gorgeous effect much of the time. But... I found a lot of the staging distracting at best, and contradictory at worst.

For example, the "Batter my Heart" aria was lovely and moving, but am I the only one who thought that the "three-person'd God" could be either the Christian God OR the bomb itself? I'm a scientist, and I know that we scientists are prone to worshipping nature's power and beauty, and the Donne poem describes God in such violent terms that I thought God=bomb or God=atom was not a wholly implausible reading. Of course, I understand that Oppenheimer's feelings about his soul are an important part of the moral questions of the opera, and the plea to the Christian God is also certainly intended-- but instead of preserving this gorgeous ambiguity, Sellars staged it so Oppenheimer is facing AWAY from the bomb, singing into the audience on his knees, totally closing off other interpretations.

Plus, I hated most of the dancing.

Lisa Hirsch

Oh, those are such interesting observations. You're right; a more ambiguous staging of "Batter my heart" would have been very effective.

I found the staging distracting; I thought the poem and its setting spoke for themselves, and that all the breast-beating was completely unnecessary. If you've got Gerald Finley, you just don't need so much physical emoting.

Your proposed staging would be very effective.

The dancing was so much better than what we usually get at the Opera. I liked it a lot. What did you hate about it?

Lisa Hirsch

Ooops, repeating myself - I meant to delete that unnecessary third graf.

M. C-, thank you for the pointer to Jon Anthony Carr - his comments are excellent.

Alex Ross

I myself found it quite hard to evaluate the staging, since I'd seen the rehearsals up close, and had all these irrelevant thoughts going through my mind, such as "Kristine Jepson needs to throw the book on the floor but keep the pencil in her hand — yes, she did it!" I was taken with most of what Sellars and his team did, but, yes, the dancers were sometimes intrusive (no need for them during the raising of the bomb) and I did think the emoting during Batter My Heart was overdone. What a tremendous idea to address the sonnet to the bomb! Just the idea gives me chills. The staging is sure to evolve over time. Sellars kept saying that the first production is mostly about learning the music.


Lisa, I totally agree about the breast-beating. It didn't fit with most of Finley's (very effective) characterization of Oppenheimer.

I should clarify about the dancing-- some of it was great. I especially liked the six dancers whirling around Kitty, and the crazy hubbub at the beginning. But with the spectacular music and the challenging libretto, it often seemed like TOO MUCH-- like when Kitty and Pasqualita are having that tender moment with the baby and that crazy single dancer was frozen in weird poses right next to them. It just seemed a little too-too. You have this great music and this compelling storyline and you have to tart it up with oh-so-meaningful dance? Contrast it with the dancing in "The Cunning Little Vixen" last year, when the doubled Vixen dancer really SAID something about the character. I thought a lot of the dancing last night was distracting and too artsy and clever by half.

Jon Anthony Carr

Thank you guys for your kind comments and for drawing attention to my review of Doctor A. You've got a fab site and I will most certainly be checking in again!

Lisa Hirsch

I put a link to your review at Iron Tongue of Midnight, also.

I don't agree with your assessment of why people might have wanted something more overt for the end of the opera, by the way. The love of FX and big bangs is not limited to "people rendered intellectually torpid by the instant gratification of a technologically oppressive media machine." There are plenty of Big Effects called for 18th and 19th century operas and stage plays. People have always liked spectacle.

Russell Volpe

Very intereting comments on Dr. Atomic. I was at the premiere and found the ending transfixing and mesmerizing. I don't get the "we didn't get our payoff" group. I too felt that Jon Anthony Carr did a fine job of describing the impact of the final minutes of the opera. I also agree with Alex Ross on his web-site post in feeling that this was one of the most significant compositions in the world of opera to come along in a great while. The sense of event was quite palpable in the War Memorial Opera House that night.

I also agree that while the staging is generally quite effective there are moments that will surely get better with reflection and refinement. I'm in the plus column on the dancing, generally finding it an enhancemnt and not a distraction. I need to hear the Kitty and Oppenheimer scene again from Act 1. It didn't make the impact on me it did on others. Perhaps it was the balance issue between singers and the pit that Tony Tommassini pointed out.

Great news that it will be coming to he Met in '08. Is that the first sign of progress under Peter Gelb or is it that Volpe (no relation) and Levine finally noticed John Adams? May the rest and the best of the second half of the 20th century and 21st century to follow be close behind.


I saw the show again for the second time, or rather listened to it since I spent most of Act One laid out on one of the (lumpy) settees at the back of the top balcony standing room. This was by choice, since there were a number of seats and hardly any other standees.

The opera started even better than I remembered it, the Varese homage really working and the opening chorus about energy and matter starting off dark and rhythmic. In fact, the entire first scene musically pumps with a propulsive Adams minimalist energy, but then it very purposefully stops for the long alternating solos (not a duet, except for one beautiful small section) between Oppenheimer and Kitty. The third and last scene in Act One has a wonderful beginning but it sags badly and for too long in the middle, like General Groves' stomach. In fact, the scene of General Groves talking about his diet is about when I wanted to yell, "Cut!" and finally we got to the John Donne Oppenheimer aria that ends the act and it was better than when I'd seen it before. The movement by Finley was more naturalistic and beautiful and the singer has gotten to know the music, which is just plain gorgeous, and he brings it out.

The first thirty minutes of Act Two I was eating dinner at home across the street from the opera house, but then returned to the segue from the Kitty/Consuela duet with the tenor singing about not being able to get to sleep. Act Two feels much more of a through-composed 80-90 minutes of music and it is ambitious as can be, but it certainly has its longeurs. Thankfully, the last thirty minutes, starting with the weirdly beautiful stooping female chorus, is masterful and I even got off the damned settee and watched the stage and the beautiful lighting until it was completely dimmed.

There are plenty of Big Effects called for 18th and 19th century operas and stage plays. People have always liked spectacle.

I agree, Lisa. I seem to recall some Wagner opera or the other that ends with a woman riding her horse in to a fire, water everywhere, masonry all over the place etc.

I thought Dr. A was a poor effort from all concerned. I think the libretto is ghastly--I went opening night (sat in the stifling hot balcony) and people all around me were giggling at lines here and there, they're so risible. I still can't figure out if the overall absymal text setting is Adams or Sellars fault. Given some of the lines he had to set, Sellars? Maybe Adams should get over his oft-stated dislike of opera and study the operas of Britten for lessons on how to set English text to music.

The Leslie Groves Diet Aria is one of the lamest things ever put on an opera stage. Everyone I talked to at the intermission and afterwards were embarrassed for Eric Owens, Adams and Sellars for this scene.

The music was interesting but I couldn't help but notice that Adams--who renounced the Second Viennese school and it's followers 30+ years ago--sure had stretches of music that sounded like....Berg. Since his miminalist style is played out, he has to do something I guess, but I simply don't think that he's a good enough composer to move on to something else.

I hated the dancing. A visual distraction most of the time, it was downright intrusive in certain scenes. What's the point of having people sprint across the stage, leap a few times, turn around and repeat that?

Maybe it's changed since the opening night, but in at least 3 instances, Sellars had singers walking to the back wall while singing. Thank Buddah for the subtitles. I thought the staging was cluttered, over-busy and confusing in parts. The lighting was superb, though.

As for the bomb explosion, I too was confused about what was happening.

I also agree with Alex Ross on his web-site post in feeling that this was one of the most significant compositions in the world of opera to come along in a great while. The sense of event was quite palpable in the War Memorial Opera House that night.

Yes, and the sense of disappointment I felt at the intermission and afterwards was palpable too. At least there wasn't the hysteria like there was following Jake Heggie's awful Dead Opera Walking, where people were acclaiming it a "masterpiece" etc.

Henry Holland

Woops, that was my diatribe above.


you need more pictures of people standing beside the atom bomb!!!

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