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date: 24 June 2019

After the Canon

Abstract and Keywords

Can opera as drama save classical music? Pierre Boulez famously proposed “blowing up all the opera houses” in 1967, and the relationship between the avant-garde and opera has been adversarial for most of the twentieth century. But in recent years interest in contemporary opera has exploded, leading critics like Joseph Kerman to proclaim that music drama proves the continuing vitality of the classical music canon. A study of the two major US productions of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic shows the pitfalls of relying on literature and drama to “sell” twenty-first-century opera as classical music: weaknesses in the libretto and staging led many intellectuals who attended the opera to dismiss it—and opera as a genre—in the harshest possible terms, reopening questions about the propriety of setting dramatic texts to music that composers had thought settled in their favor by the end of the seventeenth century.

Keywords: John Adams, Joseph Kerman, Pierre Boulez, Doctor Atomic, contemporary opera, drama, classical music, canon, text

But opera, with its traditional audience, has cut itself off from time and change. It lives in a ghetto. Opera can only be compared to a church where the parishioners’ highest desire is to keep on singing their 18th-century cantatas. I have no desire to liberate the people who voluntarily suffocate themselves in the ghetto—I have no objection to that type of suicide.

(Boulez 1967)

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?

(Rosenbaum 2008)

Blow Up the Opera Houses!

In the early morning hours of November 2, 2001, conductor Pierre Boulez was detained by Swiss security forces, whose cross-check of hotel registries against a list of those known to have made “terroristic” statements in the past turned up the name of a famous composer and modernist musical intellectual. Evidently a malicious critic had once phoned in a complaint to the Swiss authorities that Boulez had threatened to “blow him up” after a bad review; the accusation went unchallenged, and, correlated with a record of Boulez’s own incendiary comments about opera in a 1967 interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, formed enough of a pattern to justify the temporary confiscation of his passport and some pointed questions before he headed off to the airport.

The interview had been published under the provocative title “Blow Up the Opera Houses! (“Sprengt die Opernhaüser in die Luft!”), something that Boulez had indeed said, and though the Swiss took a fair amount of ribbing for their literal-mindedness, the (p. 1066) rhetorical violence of Boulez’s rejection of the postwar operatic scene remains striking. The call to blow up opera houses was in fact one of the milder moments of the conversation, presented ironically as an “elegant, if costly” solution to a proliferation of outmoded designs that prevented even the newest of German concert halls from embracing technical advances in staging. No aspect of postwar operatic culture escaped the revolutionary’s wrath: the opera world was a self-segregating “ghetto” for intellectual suicides; the typical opera house was a “musty closet,” a “music museum”; the one he knew best, in Paris, was badly maintained, full of “dust and shit,” fit only for musical “tourists” whose taste he found “sickening.” Boulez’s prescription for this sclerotic opera culture was a therapeutic “bloodletting” along Maoist lines, complete with imported cadres of Red Guards to crack heads (Boulez 1967).

A savage attack on decrepit musical institutions is always news, as the editors of Der Spiegel were well aware; harder to accept, perhaps, was Boulez’s categorical disinterest in the last thirty years of contemporary opera: “I stand by that: Since Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu not a single opera worthy of discussion has been composed.” Boulez was brutally dismissive of new works by Henze (“a hairdresser flogging superficial modernism”) and Blacher (“movie set music”), and was completely unimpressed by the number of operatic commissions handed out to young composers by the German authorities: “I don’t think you can commission a new movement into life. It’s like saying that an obstetrician is sufficient to bring a child into the world. There’s something else that needs to happen first.” Nor was he himself interested in reforming or saving contemporary opera from its devotees, who seemed to him perfectly happy in their eighteenth-century intellectual ghetto.

Boulez spoke to Der Spiegel as a composer-provocateur, the antithesis of a disinterested cultural critic, but his blanket dismissal of opera after 1945 as aesthetically and ideologically irrelevant cannot be ignored. The second half of the twentieth century presents a strange series of paradoxes to the historian of opera. New opera houses and companies proliferated in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s across Europe and America; and yet, in the large houses, the core operatic repertory focused ever more tightly on a small (and shrinking) number of nineteenth-century works, while the Continental triumph of Regietheater, or “director’s opera,” underscored the desire to make the increasingly old seem new (Chaikin 2010: 132–171). Advances in recording technology and the advent of inexpensive long-playing records made diverse performances of a wide range of operatic literature available for the first time to a mass public (Day 2000: 101–102); but the 1950s saw the final collapse of the touring companies that had once brought metropolitan opera to provincial audiences (Horowitz 2005: 494–495). Cold War cultural politics targeted new music for state support, and operatic commissions were no exception, but Boulez was right: few of the new works produced on either side of the Iron Curtain would outlive their propaganda value.

Perhaps most complex and paradoxical was the relationship in the late twentieth century between compositional technique and the demands of public theater. It is a broad but supportable generalization that, since the birth of monody, most technical advances in Western musical composition and performance have been driven by the spectacular (p. 1067) expressive needs—and grandiose budgets—of serious opera. The linkage is clearest, perhaps, at the center of the nineteenth-century repertory, studded with avant-garde populists (Rossini, Meyerbeer) who developed elaborately “modern” techniques of harmony and orchestration to impress ever broader swathes of the new bourgeois public. In the music dramas of Wagner, this fusion of technical sophistication and mass stage appeal found definitive expression, setting the terms upon which Western art music would “progress” into the new century. But by the late 1960s, it was arguable that Berg’s two intricate, sensational operatic masterpieces had indeed “finished off that chapter” (Boulez 1967). All the important postwar technical innovations in musical composition—total serialism, indeterminacy and chance, the turn to electronics and computers—were defiantly hermetic and abstract, with advanced composers like Boulez, Babbitt, and Stockhausen making a cardinal virtue out of their post-Fascist reluctance to move the masses. A few members of the avant-garde did continue with opera as a public art. Some tried to “out-Berg” Berg (Zimmermann, Die Soldaten, 1964; Ligeti, Le grand macabre, 1974–1977); others stoically thematized the fear that their work was anachronistic (Britten, Death in Venice, 1973); some refused to call their stage works “operas,” preferring the less loaded and more politically up-to-date term “action, as in “musical action” (Berio, Un re in ascolto, 1979–1983), “theatrical action” (Nono, Prometeo, 1984), or “actions for music” (Henze, We Come to the River, 1976). The controversial Henze was a logical target for Boulez’s hauteur; after working along the neoclassical lines of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with Auden and Kallmann on Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), Henze went on to proclaim in 1963 that “[e]verything [in music] tends towards theatre, and returns again from it” (Henze 1982: 131). As a gay man with a taste for operatic display, Henze’s personal and professional isolation in avant-garde circles had made the German musical scene claustrophobic for him (he decamped to Italy in 1953). For self-consciously avant-garde composers, Henze’s interest in the opera house as a setting for raw emotion and political spectacle could only be seen as aesthetically retrograde, its crowd-assembling-and-pleasing social function better served by popular music and Hollywood movies (Taruskin 2010: Chapter 5).

In a development that Boulez would never have anticipated, it was the collapse of the avant-garde for which he spoke that returned twentieth-century opera to the forefront of classical music consciousness. The most significant development in late-twentieth-century opera may well have been its transformative alliance with a growing trend inside post-Cage musical experimentalism that Michael Nyman dubbed in 1974 the “new determinacy” (Nyman [1974] 2002: 139–171). Repetitive music, or “minimalism,” as it later became generally known, was originally just another species of postwar formalism, as rigid and impersonal in its demands as the integral serialism advocated by Boulez and his followers. But by the 1980s, in the hands of composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, operatic minimalism had unexpectedly developed into the prime musical example of a postmodernist “trans-avant-garde,” invested more in sensuality and the expressive techniques of the past than avant-garde purity of purpose (Oliva 1993). With minimalist repetition in opera came a return to regular rhythm and affective tonal relationships as the organizing force behind staged spectacle. (The 1975 choral (p. 1068) piece in which Glass worked out the musical language for his breakthrough Einstein on the Beach [1976] was titled, programmatically, Another Look at Harmony.)

The fact that Glass’s first “opera” had its North American premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House was a fluke: it was late summer, the house was dark, and thus available for enterprising avant-gardists to rent, no aesthetic questions asked. Einstein on the Beach was an opera in name only, a five-hour abstraction with no plot, no characters, no arias, no trained singers, no orchestra, and no intermissions. But the technical and sonic demands of the staged production meant that Einstein toured through the opera houses of Europe, catching the attention of the same intendants whose commissions Boulez had found so sterile a decade before. As Glass recalls it, his second big stage work, Satyagraha (1980), was a response to Hans de Roo’s post-Einstein request for “a real opera,” one that used “[the Netherlands Opera] orchestra, chorus and soloists, people trained and practiced in the singing of traditional operas” (Glass 1987: 87). The result was a “grave, formal, lyrical and beautiful” work for which the postwar self-absorption in compositional technique was definitively set aside: “No one could listen to the Satyagraha score without realizing that the music is about more than its sounds, structures, figurations, and procedures” (Porter 1981: 97–98).

By the end of the twentieth century, opera, allying itself with the most vibrant strand of the musical trans-avant-garde, seemed to have recaptured Wagner’s synthesis of the technically new and the socially relevant. Glass returned to the Met in 1992 through the front door, with The Voyage, an opera commissioned to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. John Adams and director Peter Sellars combined the expansive tonal language of minimalism with other trans-avant-gardist tricks like stylistic pastiche and high-low fusion to create the blockbuster success Nixon in China (1987), a self-conscious updating of Boris Godunov for the age of media simulation (Kamuf 1993). Boulez, it appeared, had gotten it all wrong.

Opera and Drama at the Twilight of the Canon

In fact, not only had opera escaped the ghetto to which Boulez consigned it; for some critics, the continued vitality of opera as a public art was the only piece of good news about classical music itself. The story of opera at the turn of the twenty-first century took place under the gathering gloom of an extended twilight of Western art music, in which the fate of opera was caught up in the larger question of whether classical music itself was “dying” (Fink 1998; Kramer 2007b). Joseph Kerman, whose Opera as Drama ([1956] 1988) had set the parameters of postwar American operatic criticism, was, on behalf of the operas he loved, openly impatient with arguments to “the morbidity of classical music,” which he labeled a metaphor gone bad, “a tired, vacuous concept that will not die” (Kerman 2008: 7). Kerman’s determined optimism was rooted in his belief that (p. 1069) the tradition of operatic classicism could still be vital as drama: “to the most damaging charge that the culture levels at classical music, its inability to renew itself, opera gives the lie. Music must generate an expanded repertory that will arouse critics and attract audiences; opera is doing this” (Kerman 2008: 15). In fact, for Kerman, opera, not the symphony, was the lifeline of classical music, a hardy species of musical theater whose total disappearance, unlike instrumental concert music, was inconceivable. Opera, he claimed, had “world history” on its side (Kerman 2008: 19).

This idea has a long pedigree. Early-seventeenth-century opera was the first secular style to challenge church music as serious public art, justifying itself by explicit recourse to the civic theater of ancient Greece (the original “Classics”). As it spread across Europe, lyric tragedy thus made non-liturgical music intellectually respectable, giving vocal melody an important new job (the imitation of emotionally heightened speech), and linking the craft of musical composition to newly revalued classical ideals of rhetoric and ethics. For much of Western music history, composing an operatic tragedy was a serious endeavor, while instrumental music, however carefully crafted, was considered frivolous, a mere “playing with sensations,” as Immanuel Kant famously remarked (“[Musik]…blßß mit Empfindungen spielt…”; [1790] 1908: V: 329). Sonatas and concertos had little to do with deep thought or big ideas; they were agreeable space and time fillers, more likely to fade into the background than challenge the mind. It was only when the mercantile bourgeoisie became the main supporters and consumers of opera that aristocrats and musical intellectuals deployed transcendental idealism (and German symphonies) to fight the nouveau riches and their taste for expensive spectacle (Weber 2008: 85–121). From the operatic perspective, the entire “uplifting” discourse of classical music is based in anti-theatrical prejudice and class resentment. Why then should opera stoop to save classical music, when the very idea of musical “classicism” had been hijacked to cordon off its unwelcome fans?

Some of the highest-profile operatic ventures in the post-classical world of the early twenty-first century have foundered on just this icontradiction between the inclusive values of opera and the self-reflexive ideology of classical music. Simply put, it was not possible at the turn of the twenty-first century for serious opera to save classical music without, in some sense being classical music; and if opera was to be classical music, then its sense of itself as “serious” could hardly escape being infected by the solipsistic value system of the Western musical canon, where art music would rather languish alone than cede its hard-won independence from language and drama. Prima la musica e poi le parole has been the canonical slogan as far back as 1786, when a burlesque of that title by G. B. Casti (with music by court composer Salieri) was staged opposite Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor in the cavernous orangerie of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace: first the music, and [only] then the words. If, as Kerman has argued, opera’s saving essence is the bond between cultivated art music and the endlessly renewable vitality of theater (Kerman 2008: 19), its greatest threat may well be decaying fallout from the nineteenth-century explosion of “absolute” instrumental music.

It will be useful to consider a specific case study, an eagerly awaited contemporary opera on perhaps the definitive postwar subject, the making and deployment of the (p. 1070) atomic bomb. The critical reception of John Adams’s and Peter Sellars’s Doctor Atomic (2005) is a particularly good test of the staying power of traditionally staged opera as public drama, given the extraordinary expectations attendant on this much-hyped premiere from the creative team responsible for both the most successful political opera of the postwar era, Nixon in China, and one of its most notorious failures, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Crucially, those two previous operas had verse libretti composed in pungent English vernacular by poet Alice Goodman; in this they differ from Philip Glass’s operatic trilogy, where the verbal drama takes a back seat to surrealistic stage pageantry. The Adams-Sellars-Goodman operas conformed, unlike almost anything around them in the postwar era, to Kerman’s ideal of opera as drama, drawing equally on the power of words and music. But Doctor Atomic, thanks to power imbalances in its creative team, entered the world without a librettist. The music came first and last, and the creative team, just as in Salieri and Casti’s little farce, tried to adapt preexisting poetry and prose to the expediencies of musical drama. The general disappointment in the result shows what happens when a contemporary composer and director presume hubristically on continued patience with prima la musica, e poi le parole outside a small coterie of classical music devotees. No opera houses were detonated; but the mystique of sung drama did suffer some serious collateral damage.

A Faustian Bargain

The impulse to create a new opera on the subject of Robert J. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project did not come from John Adams, nor did it spring, like many new operatic ventures, from a desire to annex the popularity of a preexisting movie, play, or novel.1 The idea occurred to Pamela Rosenberg, the ambitious general director of the San Francisco Opera, who imagined Oppenheimer as “an American Faust.” Here was a commission, thought Rosenberg, whose dramatic armature could draw on perhaps the most powerful theatrical trope of modernity, the Faustian “quest for ultimate knowledge” (Gurewitsch 2005).

Goethe’s Faust as the inspiration for a grand opera prioritizes the German perspective on “serious” music that looks away from the opera house and back to the concert hall. Yes, Busoni tried to write a Faust opera (Doktor Faust, 1924), and Gounod’s saccharine 1859 version is still a mainstay of the théâtre lyrique. But truly serious treatments of the Faust legend have occurred mostly in symphonic guise: Berlioz’s unstageable Le damnation de Faust, Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony, or the second half of Mahler’s titanic Eighth. Arguably, the most influential musical readings of Goethe’s Faust are still the earliest, ideal ones imposed directly onto the symphonies of Beethoven by Wagner, A. B. Marx, and other nineteenth-century German critics (Fink 2004: 116–119). It is hard to escape the notion that Rosenberg was hoping to entice a modern Beethoven, the man she considered the “greatest composer alive,” back into her house by offering him a Faustian theme worthy of symphonic Sturm und Drang. Approached in early 2000, (p. 1071) Adams initially demurred, saying he “had no more operas in him,” but eventually he succumbed to his desire to “say something immensely important, yet also reach a lot of people” (Ross 2005: 63). In this same interview, Adams disavowed that his work actually was the American Faust that Rosenberg wanted: “I didn’t want this opera to come into the world loaded with that baggage.” But the trope appears, nonetheless, in almost every review (Tommasini 2005).

Adams took on the commission in 2002; at some point before September of the next year, librettist Alice Goodman withdrew from the project.2 Rather than find a replacement, Adams and Sellars chose to assemble the opera’s text themselves from preexisting material, as they had done with the Bible stories and political poetry that made up Adams’s Nativity oratorio, El Niño (2000). Abandoning the wide-angle view of the original libretto, which would have followed Oppenheimer into the 1950s and his battle with Edward Teller over the hydrogen bomb, Sellars immersed himself in the historical minutiae of Los Alamos: transcripts of wartime meetings and military orders; memoirs, interviews, and letters written by the participants; detailed diagrams and photos of the spherical “Gadget” itself, dripping with wires, destined to be the centerpiece of the stage set; and, most sensationally, reams of newly declassified documents from the Manhattan Project. The chronology of the opera shrank to just the few days before the first atomic test on July 16, 1945, and the goal became to create a documentary mosaic of journalistic immediacy within which, as The New Yorker admiringly reported, “almost every line could be checked against a source” (Ross 2005: 62).

The final libretto was assembled, not composed: Sellars’s research provided a ready stream of urgent, rat-a-tat recitative; the collaborators fashioned lyrical arias from contemplative poetry, favoring passages from authors whose words the hyper-literate Oppenheimer habitually used in writing and conversation (Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita). The liberal use of declassified documents allowed Sellars to designate the radically pruned story as a moral fable, even though it shied away from representing either the “sin” of Hiroshima or the eventual downfall of its Faustian scientific protagonists. As Sellars glossed it during a workshop preview of the opera eleven months before its premiere, his libretto sought to provide an abstract yet powerful vehicle for healing through recovered memory.

And [now we] ask these artists to go into an area of such deep toxicity, and out of that bring something of beauty—of lasting beauty—which is why the libretto consists of classified documents that were meant to be buried alive forever. And now that very thing that President Truman was not allowed to read—because the security apparatus kept it away from the President of the United States—is being sung in the clear light of day by chorus and orchestra…which again offers some hope for the world.

(Sellars 2004)3

The creation of a “memory space” around a holocaust-like event, rather than direct engagement through representational storytelling, was a change in strategy strongly validated by the 2003 Pulitzer Prize awarded to Adams for his multimedia composition On (p. 1072) the Transmigration of Souls (2002). Written to commemorate the attacks of September 11, 2001, this work for chorus and orchestra avoids all but the most symbolic representation of that day’s events, and like Sellars’s libretto for Doctor Atomic, assembles its “found” texts into an abstract meditation on transgression and loss.

It was thus clear by 2004, as Adams began to compose, inspired sonically by the bombast of 1950s science fiction soundtracks and the craggy modernism of Edgard Varèse, that Doctor Atomic was, to put it in slightly crass terms, going to be a tough sell. Audiences would not get operatic tragedy in the full-blooded mode of Faust: They would not hear the hubristic Oppenheimer exult, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” (Freed 1965); they would not see the bomb drop on innocent civilians; they would not watch with mounting pity and terror as nemesis, in the form of Edward Teller and the twin furies of anti-communism and the arms race, drove Doctor Atomic to his final disgrace. Sellars’s static, foreshortened libretto was elliptical to a fault: he refused on aesthetic principle to represent the devastating reality of an atomic blast, a theatrical coup Adams also flinched away from, agreeing that it would have been “clichéd on arrival” (Tommasini 2005). Pamela Rosenberg’s dream of a blockbuster opera, the new American Faust, was turning into a dissonant symphonic poem harnessed to a documentary work of experimental theater. A trenchant critical observer once usefully summed up the history of classical concert promotion in America as the perennial struggle between commercialized “ballyhoo” and quasi-religious “uplift” (Horowitz 1994: 17–42); given the grim, abstract tone of Doctor Atomic, selling it to the traditional opera public with the usual ballyhoo was not an obvious option.

Certainly no effort or expense was spared to create an explosion of publicity, a “cultural chain reaction,” around Doctor Atomic (Winn 2005a); as one jaded critic noted, “new operas are always big events, but the hype surrounding this one went off the scale” (Swed 2005). What was needed was uplift as ballyhoo, a concerted attempt to embed the premiere(s) in a general outpouring of intellectualized excitement. In San Francisco, the opera was positioned as part of an interdisciplinary consideration of history, science, morality, and aesthetics, and its launch was accompanied by a flotilla of ancillary cultural events involving the Bay Area’s major universities, the San Francisco Exploratorium, the Pacific Film Archive, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Metanexus Institute, the Left Coast Ensemble, and the American Physical Society. The Doctor Atomic push in New York was even stronger, a veritable Manhattan Project of arts management built around a new production by Penny Woolcock, the British director who had made a controversial 2002 film of Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. As The New Yorker’s online blog somewhat ambivalently noted, Peter Gelb, general director of the Met, “promoted the heck out of” Doctor Atomic, using Sloan Foundation money to put a bevy of academic humanists, physicists, and playwrights at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in dialogue with the creative team, cast, and director of the production, veterans of the A-bomb project, political historians, and other public intellectuals at Lincoln Center (“They’re promoting the heck out of it”; see Platt 2008). Sometimes ballyhoo led to strangely insensitive juxtapositions: the fact that Met conductor Alan Gilbert was of (p. 1073) Japanese-American heritage was grist for the publicity mill, motivating a presentation to the Japan Society of New York, an audience that one might assume would be particularly allergic to Hiroshima-inspired hype.

With the release of Sellars’s DVD version of the original San Francisco production of Doctor Atomic in the summer of 2008, and the Metropolitan Opera premiere that fall, Adams, who often worried in interviews about the relevance of contemporary classical music to the mass audience of late capitalism, came as close to cultural ubiquity as any twenty-first-century opera composer could get. This important premiere deserved the largest possible audience, so Gelb’s Metropolitan put the full force of its national media connections behind Doctor Atomic. The opera was broadcast four times over the XM/Sirius satellite radio network and streamed over the Internet from the Metropolitan’s website; on Saturday, November 8, a matinee performance of Doctor Atomic was simulcast in High Definition video to movie theaters in major cities around the globe. Back at the Met, in a gesture that Gelb hailed as a blow struck on behalf of “the democratization of art,” wealthy opera patrons Karl Leichtman and Agnes Varis bought up $500,000 dollars worth of premium orchestra seats and announced they would resell them to the public for just $30 (Michaels 2008). Call it uplift or ballyhoo—no expense would be spared to spread Doctor Atomic’s fallout as broadly as possible across the landscape of American arts, letters, and science.

The opera’s critical reception between 2005 and 2008 thus affords an optimal set of data with which to test the Kerman hypothesis: Would Doctor Atomic, transforming the Manhattan Project into a quasi-Faustian meditation on apocalypse with music by America’s most famous living composer (and the canny backing of America’s most powerful cultural institutions), justify the inheritance of nineteenth-century classical music to the educated bourgeois audience of the twenty-first century? Would the Gadget actually go off?

A Three-Hour Symphony of Dread

The San Francisco premiere of Doctor Atomic was an international cultural event, covered across the United States and Western Europe; subsequent premieres in Chicago and Amsterdam received less attention, but the New York premiere inspired another massive burst of press coverage (see the bibliography for a listing of key notices and reviews, 2002–2009). The overall tenor of its reception justifies David Patrick Stearns’s retrospective observation that “few major operas enter the world with so little critical consensus as Doctor Atomic” (Stearns 2008). In fact, collective analysis of the opera’s strengths and weaknesses has remained relatively consistent over the years. But except for a few unequivocal admirers who persistently acclaimed Doctor Atomic as a total success (Swed 2008), critics could not agree on whether their admiration for Adams’s music or distaste for Sellars’s libretto should be decisive (Gereben 2005). Partisans of contemporary art music, predisposed to admire Adams’s development as a composer, tended to render a positive judgment on the opera as a whole. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua (p. 1074) Kosman, a long-time supporter, hardly hedged his bet, anointing Doctor Atomic “some kind of masterpiece” (Kosman 2005b); Mark Swed’s original review in the Los Angeles Times, while noting intimations of backstage disarray, hastened to assure his readers that the opera was “a magnificent achievement” filled with “music of unearthly splendor and gorgeous lushness” (Swed 2005). Adams was lauded for definitively “transcending” his minimalist roots (Brug 2005), and for manipulating a post-Wagnerian orchestra and generous admixtures of dissonance to overwhelming effect (Fleming 2005). But an odd disconnect shadowed this praise; although a few critics imagined the massive orchestra as a force for dramatic characterization, most responded to the thermonuclear power of instrumental sound wielded for its own sake:

Whole spans of the orchestral and choral music tremble with textural density. Stacked-up clusters and polytonal harmonies have stunning bite and pungency. Skittish instrumental lines come close to sounding like riffs from a serialist score…When he needs to propel the music forward, Mr. Adams, true to form, creates a din of pummeling rhythms, fractured meters and jolting repeated figures: call it atomic Minimalism.

(Tommasini 2005)

In a significant mistaking of the part for the whole, critics of Doctor Atomic referred to Adams’s “music” when they were almost always speaking exclusively about his orchestral music, imagined as a force of nature operating at the sub-atomic level; the vocal lines, which in a traditional opera would be the most direct musical link to the human story acted out on stage, did not often figure into these critical judgments. In this vein, Alex Ross inadvertently revealed a general ideological predilection when he described Doctor Atomic just before its San Francisco premiere as “a three-hour symphony of dread” (Ross 2005: 65). In the world of the classical canon, there can be no higher praise for an opera than mistaking it for a symphony, as conductor Robert Spano later did, evoking that most canonical symphonist of all as inspiration for his concert performances of Doctor Atomic with the Atlanta Symphony: “The formal structures are so big that ‘Doctor Atomic’ is almost Beethovenian in that way. All the small parts refer back to the big overarching idea. The structure is always right there” (Ruhe 2008).

A Libretto Is Not a Program Note

Doctor Atomic is indeed very carefully put together. But, according to the Kerman hypothesis, the enduring cultural vitality of opera will derive not from well-wrought musical structures, but from its continued ability to involve audiences in the emotional spectacle of a well-staged drama. On these terms, the new opera was almost universally deemed a failure. Disappointed critics, well aware that the text was the work of a controversial director moonlighting as a writer, attacked Sellars’s literary shortcomings at every level, deploring the libretto’s ideological preachiness, its lack of sustained character development or structural tension, and especially its long stretches of lumpy, (p. 1075) prosaic borrowed language. Many recoiled from the perceived “banality and pretension” (Canning 2008) of Sellars’s “lethally self-conscious” anti-nuclear symbolism (Reed 2009), in which, as one exasperated critic summed it up, “Motherhood = good; nuclear weapons = bad. Hey, thanks, man!” (Page 2005; the reference is to the stage design of Act II, in which a life-size replica of the atomic device dangles menacingly over a baby’s crib). Scientists and historians complained that this moral calculus was oversimplified, discounting the real human losses anticipated during an Allied invasion of Japan; Die Welt remarked acidly that, as Iraq and North Korea flirted anew with nuclear destruction, “what might have been a critical report from the concert hall…proved only professionally stale, percussion-peppered political correctness” (Brug 2005).

Even sympathetic critics found Sellars’s libretto for Doctor Atomic strangely “antitheatrical” (Stearns 2005), making for “an opera that is not conventionally dramatic in any way” (Kosman 2005b). Many found the “metaphor and high-flown imagery” of the collaged libretto non-operatic, and its central characters unreadable (Clements 2005). Several, noting its “lofty, dullish” (Harvey 2005) avoidance of stage action and the focus on issues of power and responsibility, likened the result to eighteenth-century opera seria (Sutcliffe 2005). Structural problems were worst in the second act, a long decrescendo of action that made many reviewers impatient; waiting for the bomb to go off, at least one missed the presence of a real writer who could have advocated for opera as drama: “I wonder if Act II would be so becalmed dramatically…if Sellars had taken up the creative writer’s responsibility for finding a narrative dynamic that Adams’s previous librettist Alice Goodman so wonderfully exercised in Nixon and Klinghoffer” (Sutcliffe 2005).

Nowhere was the lack of a professional hand more keenly felt than in the actual language of the opera’s text: The critical consensus was that Sellars had failed as a practical poet whose first job should have been to provide patterns of crisp, singable verse for the composer to set. True, a distinct minority liked the fact that scientific equations, bureaucratic memoranda, and weather reports were sung in grand operatic style: Dennis Overbye, award-winning author of Einstein in Love, saw Doctor Atomic’s singing physicists as figures of a new, secular epic: “To hear the chorus of khaki-clad scientists and engineers sing of such matters is to have the gritty details of engineering and science raised to liturgy. It re-mythologized the atomic project for me in a way I had not thought possible” (Overbye 2005). But the consensus view of Sellars’s wordsmithing was strongly negative. Critics fell over each other bashing the “verbal flabbiness” (Clements 2005) of his libretto: “it is alarmingly, sometimes ludicrously intrusive, veering between extremes of technobabble opacity and the purplest of poetic hyperbole” (Reed 2009).

Perhaps the most devastating appraisal came not from a professional critic, but a rival. Mark Adamo, whose 1998 opera Little Women had been one of the very few American works to match the genuine popular success of Adams’s Nixon in China, came away bitterly disappointed from Doctor Atomic, blaming the composer for letting loyalty to an old friend blind him to the fact that the text collage he had accepted in place of a real libretto doomed the work to dramatic nullity: “Nothing is shaped: nothing develops; so there’s nothing to compose into. Sellars seemed more committed to an anti-dramatic method (p. 1076) of creating a text than to exploring the story and the issues. Didn’t Adams hear what was missing? If he did, didn’t he care?” Adamo, a strong partisan of sung drama, scolded his more famous, more “symphonic” colleague for not taking the practical exigencies of the theater seriously. An opera shouldn’t be a three-hour symphony composed to illustrate, rather than set, its texts. “A libretto,” he snapped, “is not a program note” (Adamo 2008).

The Spinal Tap of Opera

Adamo’s dismissal might itself be dismissed as professional jealousy—but much harder to ignore are the incredulous responses to Doctor Atomic from non-musical intellectuals drawn in to see it by the intimation of a “capital-I Important” intellectual event (Winn 2005b) with ramifications far beyond the clubby world of contemporary music composition. For at least one of these opera-house neophytes, the experience was shocking to the point of complete disillusion:

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…Doctor Atomic began to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera […].

(Rosenbaum 2008)

Ron Rosenbaum, long-time essayist for The Village Voice and other intellectual periodicals, and the author of two well-received books of cultural journalism (Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars), announced defiantly in the online magazine Slate that he had fled the Met’s Doctor Atomic, the Spinal Tap of opera, at the first intermission. Rosenbaum’s extended dissection of the opera’s failings, entitled “The Opera’s New Clothes: Why I Walked Out of Doctor Atomic,” echoes many of the critical opinions surveyed above: he found the opera’s “dorm-room poster” moralizing pretentious, and its characters opaque and wooden. As a professional writer, he saved his harshest vitriol for Sellars’s use of language, which he found, even by what he understood to be the low intellectual standard of opera librettos, “pedestrian, speechifying, and [in the love scenes] embarrassingly schlocky” (Rosenbaum 2008).

It’s not clear from Rosenbaum’s denunciation whether he realized that some of those “schlocky” passages in Act I were translations of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, or whether he recalled from the opera’s program booklet that the pedestrian speechifying was assembled from the actual words of historical figures in the Los Alamos drama. But—and this is where things get interesting for prognosticators about classical music’s future—it’s not likely that either point would have mattered to him. Rosenbaum, less attuned perhaps than a composer like Mark Adamo to the politics of operatic collaboration, did not complain that the libretto of Doctor Atomic was unusually amateurish and poor because no real poet or playwright had worked on it; he decided, rather, that opera (p. 1077) librettos must always have been this amateurish and poor, and he just hadn’t known it. The fact that the libretto of this new work was in English, and terrible, clotted bureaucratic English at that, ripped the veil of mystification from opera itself as a dramatic form, suddenly revealed parading across the stage of Lincoln Center with no aesthetic covering for its naked absurdity:

“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.

(Rosenbaum 2008)

Rosenbaum was not the only observer who found that a contemporary opera in everyday English disclosed serious literary problems with the form; this was a position taken by a number of non-musicians who, caught up in the cultural hype around the premiere, felt moved to write about Doctor Atomic. New York novelist Carl Watson found the text-setting awkward (“words seemed to have been stuffed into a musical phrase that was just fine without it”), but admitted this might be because the foreign texts of most operas let him sidestep the enabling fiction that, in opera, the singers are actually supposed to be speaking: “I have never been a fan of English-language operas, and this is because I can understand them. Opera lyrics tend to be pretty corny, even downright dumb, and they have a lot more power if they are lost without translation, becoming part of the music” (Watson 2009).

This may seem like philistinism, but it has a long and honorable history, especially in the English-speaking world. It was in 1711 that Joseph Addison famously remarked how “nothing has more startled our English audience than the Italian recitativo at its first entrance upon the stage. People were wonderfully surprised to hear generals singing the word of command and ladies delivering messages in music” (Addison 1711: 1). To a student of Western art music, it is remarkable that people are once again capable of being surprised by recitative, the most well-worn convention of the operatic stage. Rosenbaum’s twenty-first-century indictment—that opera turns the trivial meaninglessly bombastic—finds its clear precedent in the seventeenth-century verdict handed down by the erudite Charles de Saint-Évremond in what musicological anthologist Edward Lippman characterized as his “notorious” letter on opera addressed to George Villiers, the 2nd Lord Buckingham, in 1677:

There is another Thing in Operas so contrary to Nature, that I cannot be reconciled to it; and that is the singing of the whole Piece, from beginning to end, as if the Persons (p. 1078) represented were ridiculously match’d, and had agreed to treat in Musick both the most common, and most important Affairs of Life. Is it to be imagin’d that a Master calls his Servant, or sends him on an errand, singing; that one Friend imparts a secret to another, singing; That Men deliberate in Council, singing; That Orders in time of Battle are given, singing; and That Men are melodiously killed with Sward and Darts?

(Lippmann 1992: 48ff)

We seem to have misplaced about two centuries of aesthetic arguments in favor of melos on the dramatic stage. Many music critics found the libretto of Doctor Atomic too much a literary conceit, fundamentally un-operatic; but for the literary Rosenbaum, the strange musical burden of the operatic mode, the fatal need to “sing” everything, foreclosed any emotional insight a character drama about the atomic bomb might try to provide: “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” (Rosenbaum 2008).

Rosenbaum even rejected on literary grounds the one moment in the Adams-Sellars collaboration that had achieved general critical acclaim, Oppenheimer’s tense neo-Baroque aria at the end of Act I, fashioned from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (“Batter my heart, three person’d God”) in a nod to “Trinity,” Oppenheimer’s literary code name for the Alamogordo test site. Kosman (2005b) thought Donne’s dense poetic language inspired Adams to an equally “compact” setting, like the “fissile core” that powers a nuclear weapon (or a three-hour opera). But Rosenbaum could not get past the violence done to Donne:

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-person’d 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.

(Rosenbaum 2008)

Rosenbaum’s New Critical respect for the tensile strength of complex grammatical constructions is admirable. Upon reflection, one does see how repeating individual words and phrases could be understood to derail the measured rhetorical progression of Donne’s elaborate poetic conceits.4 But in practical terms, this level of literary purism puts the composer of opera in an old-fashioned aesthetic double bind whose effect is to make serious music drama well-nigh impossible. If the libretto is verbose and prosaic, then intoning its banalities is tediously absurd; if the libretto is condensed and lyrical, then the inevitable repetitions of text (did Rosenbaum think that this was a mannerism unique to Adams?) will be equally absurd, in the manner so entertainingly burlesqued by Mr. Jonathan Swift in his Cantata of 1746: Prima le parole, e non poi la musica, per favore! (See Figure 49.1).

After the CanonClick to view larger

Figure 49.1 Jonathan Swift, A Cantata. The Works of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, edited by John Hawkesworth (London: 1754), VII: 435.

The recrudescence of seventeenth-century aesthetic positions in the postmodern present is fascinating to a musicologist, who experiences something like the naïve scientific wonderment of the paleontologists faced with living dinosaurs in Michael (p. 1079) Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But such reactionary reception is discouraging if one is counting on new operas to throw out the lifeline to Western art music. Yes, the example of Doctor Atomic shows that opera still has provisional access to a mythic register that can, given the right subject and enough money, be marketed to the educated public at large; it can indeed try to be music “for the man who enjoys Hamlet,” to paraphrase the title of a famous midcentury musical appreciation text that has, ironically, less to do with music theater than the German instrumental canon, although it does make an exception for Mozart’s Magic Flute (Haggin 1944). But the recent reception of Doctor Atomic shows the riskiness of enticing novice audiences unfamiliar with classical music into the opera house, primed for a scintillating new drama of ideas. Opera’s time-hallowed conventions of text and setting can appear silly, even anti-intellectual to newcomers, especially for contemporary stories, where recognizable characters sing in vernacular language about still-controversial issues. Long-resolved debates about the aesthetic value of music itself may be reopened; audiences may be repulsed, not attracted by opera’s garish spectacle; cultural ground may be lost, rather than gained.

Go Ask Alice

Given the general dissatisfaction with the collage of found texts Adams and Sellars used in place of a libretto, it is surprising that few music journalists tried to find their ex-collaborator Alice Goodman, the poet and dramatist originally asked to provide one. When Tom Service of The Guardian did get Goodman on record just before the San Francisco premiere, her explanation for the failure of the Doctor Atomic collaboration (p. 1080) was distractingly sensational: “I found that the structure John and Peter had got together with me was really anti-Semitic, with Oppenheimer as the good blue-eyed Jew and Edward Teller as the bad limping one with the greasy hair, and a host of virtuous native Americans pitted against the refugee physicists out in the New Mexico desert. I couldn’t see how it could be anything but deeply offensive” (Service 2005). In the wake of The Death of Klinghoffer, which had been attacked, perhaps wrongly, by many New York critics as both offensive and anti-Semitic (Fink 2005), this was an incendiary charge which Adams could only dismiss angrily in the same article as “preposterous.” (It would indeed have seemed strange to those who later saw the opera, since Sellars’s truncated scenario for Doctor Atomic eliminated “good Jew” Oppenheimer’s infamous betrayal by “bad Jew” Teller on the House Committee on Un-American Activities [HUAC] witness stand in 1953, at the height of the anti-Semitic anti-communist hysteria that put Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair.)5 Adams himself aggressively defended Sellars, finding dramatic cohesion in his work that few others could see: “He did a brilliant job of solving the challenge. I think that the dialogue in Doctor Atomic, particularly in the first act, virtually crackles with the high energy of human interaction. It’s every bit as involving and as realistic as anything I’ve seen in any other opera libretto” (Adams in May 2006: 223).

Goodman’s accusation of anti-Semitism in the original scenario is a distraction from the real problem, which, it seems to me, has much more to do with chauvinism, both masculine and musical, on the part of her collaborators. Many commentators found the finished opera’s gendered division of moral labor, where men have the power to make the bomb, and women only the powerlessness to feel guilty about it, not only historically inaccurate (by all accounts, Kitty Oppenheimer was a spouse both acute and ambitious) but dramatically shallow. It is hard to imagine an empowered female librettist allowing her male colleagues to get away with transposing the most retrograde aspect of Goethe’s Faust, its antique gender politics, into an opera about American modernity. She might have weaned them of condescending faux-chivalry like this, from Adams, in an interview just before the premiere: “I use Goethe’s term das ewig Weibliche, the Eternal Feminine [because] I think that women have a moral awareness that men have perhaps not achieved” (Adams in Gurewitsch 2005).

But can we really blame Adams, the dominant force in this collaboration, for treating his librettist as callously as famous composers treated librettists just as soon they could get away with it, that is, when operas by Wagner and Verdi were allowed (provisionally) into the classical music canon, with its fundamental(ist) belief in the primacy of “abstract” music? Rosenbaum (2008) insinuates in his review that music critics, who “felt the music was all that mattered,” had deliberately covered up the “emptiness” where Doctor Atomic’s libretto should have been. He had a point, given the kind of special pleading that sometimes leached through even the most positive notices, like Stearns’s claim that “a libretto’s success is ultimately judged by the music it inspires” (2005) or Gurewitsch’s prediction that “in opera, it is music that has the last word, and in the long run it is on the music that the mythic claims of the Adams triptych will rest” (2005). A more thorough-going betrayal of Kerman’s capacious view of opera as (p. 1081) drama could hardly be imagined; one might as easily claim “mythic” status for all the Rossini operas whose jaunty overtures are the only thing we now play in the concert hall.

In early 2004, well in advance of the publicity blitz around Doctor Atomic, an enterprising reporter had already traveled to the north of England to research an unrelated human interest story on why a once-famous poet and opera librettist would step away from the international spotlight to minister to the provincial poor. The resulting article had more to do with Alice Goodman’s own life choices than with the failure of her long working relationship with Adams and Sellars—anti-Semitism was not mentioned at all—but the new vicar of Kidderminster did eventually unburden herself on how her relationship with the mercurial young composer of Nixon in China had recently changed:

John…always trusted me to do what was right. We had what I would call a polyphonic collaboration where we were thinking/feeling/doing things that weren’t quite ad idem and didn’t have to be. I wasn’t there just to put John’s ideas into words. Now, I feel my role has diminished, the parameters have narrowed. And it’s not unconnected with the fact that John is now the most famous, most performed living composer in the world…and I’m a curate in Kidderminster.

(White 2004)

Adams later observed with a certain amount of smugness that Goodman had been “a literary person working in what’s fundamentally a musical world, opera, always feeling that her value was never quite appreciated” (Adams in May 2006: 220). One can hardly blame him—this is how real composers are supposed to talk—but there may be, at the twilight of the classical music canon, something a little Faustian, something overreaching, in the figure of the “great” composer who arrogates to himself all the responsibility for the operatic collaboration. Busoni, after all, died without ever finishing the Faust opera whose unwieldy libretto he had written himself.

Prima la musica, e poi le parole. The twentieth century is littered with operas doomed to irrelevance by composers who thought they no longer needed librettists, from Arnold Schoenberg to Pulitzer Prize–winner John Harbison, whose faux-modest account casts himself as poet in the role of his own overworked and overmatched literary factotum: “The Great Gatsby is a music-driven opera in which the composer bullied the librettist as they worked together. Every choice was in favor of musical opportunities; Fitzgerald’s novel was ‘respected’ only insofar as it furthered the musical design” (Harbison 2000: 1). But la musica doesn’t always get the last word, as lukewarm reviews of The Great Gatsby reveal: “The more purely dramatic scenes were uneven and often went on too long, as if the composer were unwilling to cut short the writer. Often the inventive orchestral conversation was more interesting than the vocal lines going on above” (Stevens 1999). Like Harbison and Harbison’s Great Gatsby, Adams’s and Sellars’s Doctor Atomic failed to hold the stage, and thus will ultimately fail to fulfill Joseph Kerman’s criterion for classical music as a living culture—“[it] must generate an expanded repertory that will arouse critics and attract audiences.” (p. 1082)

(They Do Not Move)

Back in 1967, Der Spiegel, surveying the devastation of the contemporary opera scene as depicted by Boulez, posed the obvious follow-up question. “People say Pierre Boulez himself wants to write an opera…how would yours be different from, let’s say, the works of Henze?” (Boulez 1967). The composer’s first thought was not of the music, but the words. He had no interest in setting a preexisting text (“Literature set to music is sterile”); in fact, the whole idea of “setting to music” (Vertonung) bored him. Boulez sought the musical transformation (Verwendung) of words into theater: “I’d like to try an experiment where words and music were conceived simultaneously. In other words, I’d like to work with a writer who feels, with every word that he puts down, that music appears, that the text is only capable of existing in conjunction with music” (Boulez 1967). In a visionary moment, Boulez evoked transcendence of the dichotomy at the root of prima la musica, e poi le parole, imagining an ideal collaboration where neither music nor words would take artistic priority, but would arise together from a single creative impulse. The model appears to have been the revolutionary stage works of Jean Genet, but as Boulez noted, one would have to postulate a cultural revolution in order to realize anything like them on the postwar operatic stage. Thus, perhaps, the rare flash of humility when asked whether he would be composing any operas: “I’d like to—whether I will is uncertain.”

As of this writing, forty-five years have passed since Pierre Boulez proposed dynamiting the opera houses of Europe to clear space for his vision of a truly modern music theater. The opera houses are, of course, still standing upright, and, although he has conducted operas by Wagner, Debussy, and Berg at Bayreuth and elsewhere, Boulez himself never got around to writing one. The most recent swirl of rumors say the octogenarian composer might be planning a premiere in 2015 at the historic Teatro alla Scala in Rome (Service 2010). The subject has been the cause of some journalistic ironizing, given the extraordinary delay such a long-awaited debut would represent: Boulez, it is reported, may well finish his composing career with an operatic setting of a preexisting literary classic, Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot.

Needless to say, there has been no mention of a librettist.


Estragon: Sing something.

Vladimir: No no! (Reflects.) We could start all over again perhaps.

Estragon: That should be easy.

Vladimir: It’s the start that’s difficult.

Estragon: You can start from anything.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but you have to decide.



See also: 1900–1945, Versification, Musical Dramaturgy, Politics


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Reporting on and Critical Reception of Doctor Atomic, 2002–2009

Adamo, Mark. 2008. “John, Atoms.” Weblog (October 14). (accessed March 9, 2009).

Brown, Geoff. 2008. “Netherlands Opera: Doctor Atomic (DVD).” Times of London (Online) (August 1).Find this resource:

——. 2007. Review of Adams, ‘Doctor Atomic’ Symphony. Times of London (Online) (August 23).Find this resource:

Brug, Manuel. 2005. “(K)ein amerikanischer Faust: ‘Doctor Atomic’ von John Adams und Peter Sellars in San Francisco.” Die Welt (October 4).Find this resource:

Canning, Hugh. 2008. “Doctor Atomic—the Sunday Times Review.” The Sunday Times (online) (October 19).Find this resource:

Clements, Andrew. 2005. “Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera.” The Guardian (October 5).Find this resource:

Eichler, Jeremy. 2005. “An Opera That Hovers on Threshold of the Nuclear Age.” Boston Globe (October 6).Find this resource:

Fleming, John. 2005. “Explosive Opera.” St. Petersburg (Florida) Times (October 21).Find this resource:

Gereben, Janos. 2005. “‘Doctor Atomic’ Batters Heart, Mind.” San Diego Magazine (October 1).Find this resource:

Gurewitsch, Matthew. 2005. “The Opera That Chooses the Nuclear Option.” New York Times (September 25).Find this resource:

Harvey, Daniel. 2005. “‘Doctor Atomic’ in SF.” Variety (October 4). (p. 1086) Find this resource:

Kevles, Daniel J. 2005. “Dr. Atomic: An Opera about the Moral Complexities of Hiroshima.” Slate (October 19).Find this resource:

Kosman, Joshua. 2005a. “S.F. Opera to Premiere Work by John Adams in New Season—Handel, Bellini Also in Lineup.” San Francisco Chronicle (January 13).Find this resource:

——. 2005b. “Using a Trinity of Unconventional Drama, Haunting Score, and Poetry, S. F. Opera Confronts Our Age’s Most Terrifying Topic.” San Francisco Chronicle (October 3).Find this resource:

Maxwell, Dominic. 2007. “A Legend Out of His Own Time.” The Times of London (Online) (January 26).Find this resource:

Michaels, Sean. 2008. “Opera Sponsors Buy £250,000 Worth of Tickets.” The Guardian (October 9).Find this resource:

Morrison, Richard 2009. “The man who put a bomb under opera. He gave us Nixon and Mao, and terrorism at sea. Now John Adams goes nuclear with Doctor Atomic. Richard Morrison meets a composer re-inventing opera.” The Times of London (February 14).Find this resource:

Overbye, Dennis. 2005. “‘Dr Atomic’: Unthinkable Yet Immortal.” New York Times (October 18).Find this resource:

Page, Tim. 2005. “‘Doctor Atomic’: Unleashing Powerful Forces.” Washington Post (October 3).Find this resource:

Platt, Russell. 2008. “New Paths.” Entry in Going Places weblog. The New Yorker (October 3). Online. Available: (accessed January 15, 2012).Find this resource:

Reed, Peter. 2009. “ENO Delivers with a Bang; Or How I Learned to Love an Opera about a Bomb.” The Sunday Telegraph (March 8).Find this resource:

Rosenbaum, Ron. 2008. “The Opera’s New Clothes: Why I Walked Out of Doctor Atomic.” Slate (October 24).Find this resource:

Ross, Alex. 2005. “Countdown: John Adams and Peter Sellars Create an Atomic Opera.” The New Yorker (October 3): 60–71.Find this resource:

Ruhe, Pierre. 2008. “‘Atomic’ Emperor of Opera.” [Interview with Robert Spano]. Atlanta Journal-Constitution (November 16).Find this resource:

Service, Tom. 2005. “‘This Was the Start of a New Epoch in Human History.’” The Guardian (September 29).Find this resource:

Stearns, David Patrick. 2008. “‘Doctor Atomic’: The Met’s Manhattan Project.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (October 16).Find this resource:

——. 2005. “Heroic A-bomb Opera Will Create Fallout.” The Philadelphia Enquirer (October 5).Find this resource:

Sutcliffe, Tom. 2005. “Doctor Atomic [in SF].” The Times of London (Online) (October 4).Find this resource:

Swed, Mark. 2008. “In Opera, Print Takes a Tragic Turn.” Los Angeles Times (December 7).Find this resource:

——. 2005. “An Explosive Premiere.” Los Angeles Times (October 3).Find this resource:

Tommasini, Anthony. 2005. “Countdown to the Eve of Destruction.” New York Times (October 2).Find this resource:

van Gelder, Lawrence. 2002. “Footlights.” New York Times (December 24).Find this resource:

Waleson, Heidi. 2005. “All About the Bomb.” The Wall Street Journal (October 4).Find this resource:

Watson, Carl. 2009. “A Review of the Opera, Dr. Atomic.” A Gathering of the Tribes (January 21). Online. Available: (accessed January 20, 2012).

White, Michael. 2004. “God’s Opera Writer.” [Interview with Alice Goodman]. The Telegraph (February 8).Find this resource:

Winn, Steven. 2005a. “‘Atomic’ Sets Off Cultural Chain Reaction.” San Francisco Chronicle (September 29).Find this resource:

——. 2005b. “The Bomb May Be Too Big Even for Art to Grasp.” San Francisco Chronicle (October 6).Find this resource:


(1) . From the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Harbison, The Great Gatsby, 1999) to Tennessee Williams (Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1998) and Grahame Greene (Heggie, The End of the Affair, 2004); from director Elia Kazan, who directed Streetcar, to John Ford (Gordon, The Grapes of Wrath, 2007) and all the way to horror auteur David Cronenberg (Howard Shore, The Fly, 2008), the subjects of recent American operas have often been sold to impresarios and audiences as “instant masterpieces,” musical treatments of stories and characters so familiar and successful that the operas based on them couldn’t miss. On such derivative works and the desire to produce “The Great American Opera,” see Kramer (2007b).

(2) . A timeline of the first Doctor Atomic production can be found at the San Francisco Opera’s, although as an official, ex post facto account, it passes over many details of great interest to critical posterity that must be sourced from journalistic accounts. Adams and Goodman were both listed, along with Peter Sellars and conductor Donald Runnicles, when the commission was announced to the press in December 2002. See, for instance, van Gelder 2002.

(3) . Gurewitsch (2005) reports a working copy of the libretto in which every line was literally footnoted. Peter Sellars’s remarks are from a transcript of the San Francisco Opera’s Doctor Atomic Workshop, October 30, 2005. According to Ross (2005: 62), Sellars took as his model Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter, in which “the word ‘Hiroshima’ occurs once.” (The same is true of Doctor Atomic.) Sellars implies that a documentary-collage style is uniquely suited to subjects like Hiroshima and the Holocaust because the bathetic failure of representational artifice is an unacceptable risk; see Wlodarski 2010 for a critique of what Holocaust scholars call “secondary witness” in Steve Reich’s Different Trains, another musical memory space that attempted to avoid bathos with a documentary approach.

(4) . Close reading of the works of John Donne was foundational to the advent of New Criticism in American literary studies, in particular as demonstrated by Brooks (1947), who begins with an extended analysis of Donne’s “The Canonization” along the lines Rosenbaum adumbrates. The approach has had a long life in the Yale English Department, where Brooks taught from 1947 to 1975 and Rosenbaum earned his B.A. in English Literature in 1968.

(5) . How much Goodman actually worked on Doctor Atomic is not clear. Ongoing scholarship on the opera’s compositional history promises to shed quite a bit more light on the troubled genesis of the libretto; in particular, a hand-written scenario in three (!) acts, the product of the initial planning meetings between Adams, Sellars, and Goodman, has recently been brought to light by musicologist Alice Miller Cotter (personal communication with the author).

(6) . Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Act II: 1798–1805, in Bloom 2008: 56–57.