An explosive premiere

Times Staff Writer

THE atmosphere at the War Memorial Opera House here Saturday night was charged for the premiere of John Adams’ new opera, “Doctor Atomic.” As the lights went down, an electronic soundscape filled the darkened hall. Distant noises -- from machines, voices, 1945 radio snippets -- ushered us out of our world and into that of the opera.

Doctor Atomic is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led a group of acclaimed scientists in the remarkable race against the Germans to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. The opera focuses on the bomb’s secret test in summer 1945 in the New Mexico desert. When, at the end, the test succeeds, so do Adams and the librettist and stage director Peter Sellars, forcing us to face exactly what that mushroom cloud means.

This climax contains some of the most powerful and haunting music Adams has written. It relies on one of the most astonishing bits of stagecraft Sellars has conceived. It expands your consciousness in the way opera is uniquely qualified to do on those rare occasions when the art form is working with all its cylinders firing.


New operas are always big events, but the hype surrounding this one went off the scale. Adams is a cultural hero in the Bay Area. Oppenheimer, who was drafted from UC Berkeley to run the clandestine Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., cast a large shadow over this region. The bomb, of course, cast a shadow larger than any other over all humanity. It still does.

Atomic zeal has certainly overtaken the Bay Area. Nuclear physicists, historians, Beat poets, Jungian psychologists and experimental artists have all gotten into the act in a feast of ancillary events surrounding the premiere. No audience has been better prepared for a new work. And anyone planning to attend a performance of “Doctor Atomic” should report for duty at least an hour early to read the thorough, really smart program book.

But the mood Saturday night was also one of concern. Reports of trouble had been leaking from San Francisco Opera, which commissioned “Doctor Atomic,” for weeks. During the summer, the most celebrated singer in the cast, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, suffered back problems and was forced to drop out. Other singers left because of problems with either the music or the staging. I kept hearing the word “disaster.”

Make no mistake, “Doctor Atomic” is a magnificent accomplishment that easily takes its place alongside the other Adams-Sellars triumphs -- “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “El Nino” -- and in important respects goes beyond them. It contains music of unearthly splendor and gorgeous lushness, and its rich expressivity will take many hearings to absorb.

The libretto that Sellars has ingeniously collated from documentary material and poetry is a singular accomplishment that deeply humanizes yet also profoundly mythologizes its subjects and subject matter. The complex production, which incorporates light, dance (choreographed by Lucinda Childs), ritual and realism, has unforgettable moments, though it too will take time to fully grasp.

So calling the evening a disaster would be a huge exaggeration. The performance Saturday, however, was not elevated.

First the work itself. Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist who wrestled with the greatest moral issue of all as he guided the construction of the first weapons of mass destruction and their use on two unsuspecting Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the final cataclysm of World War II. A man devoted to poetry and inner reflection, a pragmatist but also a sensualist, he knew what it means to lose a soul.

“Doctor Atomic” opens at the Los Alamos laboratory, June 1945, with the frenzy of finishing the bomb, with Oppenheimer trying to keep high-strung scientists (the hawkish Edward Teller, the dovish Robert Wilson) on mission. His is the power of life and death, and he finds erotic release in an angst-ridden love scene with his wife, Kitty. His lines come from Baudelaire; hers, from the American poet Muriel Rukeyser. In an instant, he drops his defenses, lost in her hair, and then in another instant he needs to put those defenses right back on again.

The rest of the opera demonstrates the inexorable power the bomb has over the men as they wrestle with the possibility of igniting the atmosphere during a freak electrical storm on the night of the test. Back at home, the implications of mass death are understood by the women -- Kitty and her Native American maid, Pasqualita.

Oppenheimer ends the first act with an intensely personal, Baroque-flavored aria to a John Donne sonnet, which begins “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Kitty, at home with her children the night of the test, begins the second act with a huge aria set to the Rukeyser poem “Easter Eve 1945,” pondering life in that time of war and destruction. During the countdown to the explosion, the chorus, fear-struck, sings of a fiery visage in stanzas translated from the Hindu text of the Bhagavad-Gita. Drums thunder and the earth shakes.

The countdown proceeds slowly. Gen. Leslie Groves, in charge, tries to command the weather. The scientists become increasingly edgy. Teller’s humor turns pitch-black. We witness the explosion through the eyes of its witnesses -- the chorus huddled on the ground, like dead bodies. Sounds drift from speakers throughout the auditorium. Japanese voices are heard in the distance.

Donald Runnicles, the music director of San Francisco Opera, understands the Wagnerian power of Adams’ orchestral writing, but on Saturday he failed to bring out the inner rhythmic life that drives Adams’ music, allowing inertia to set in. This is clearly a job for Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kent Nagano or David Robertson.

A kind of inertia overtook most of the singers as well. Baritone Gerald Finley gave Oppenheimer some fine moments, especially in his rapt singing of the Donne sonnet, but he was stolid, not mercurial, not magnetic. Kristine Jepson’s Kitty became a stock operatic character, not flesh, not blood, certainly not passion personified. I was never frightened by Eric Owens’ unblustery Gen. Groves, never offended by Richard Paul Fink’s matter-of-fact Teller. Thomas Glenn was livelier as Robert Wilson, the young physicist. But only Beth Clayton (Pasqualita) and James Maddalena (Jack Hubbard, the weatherman) were personalities.

Still, Sellars provides plenty of theater. Childs’ dancers, formal yet ecstatic, regularly invade the stage, creating tension and release. Adrianne Lobel’s set, with cartoonish stage props coming and going, is unreal and super-real at the same time. The bomb hanging over a cradle is an image that says it all.

James F. Ingalls creates a symphony of light. Amplification is used, and Mark Grey’s sound design is hugely effective for the orchestra and the electronic soundscape. But electronics can’t provide presence for singers who otherwise lack it.

This, though, is just the beginning for “Doctor Atomic.” San Francisco Opera has scheduled 10 performances over the work’s three-week run. Next season it travels to Chicago and Amsterdam. The Metropolitan Opera is rumored to be planning a production. Others will inevitably follow. Performers will eventually rise to the occasion. They have no choice.


‘Doctor Atomic’

Where: San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18 and 20; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, 14 and 22; 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 16

Price: $25 to $235

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or