Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dr. Atomic - pretentious opera?

John Adam's "Dr Atomic" has garnerd accolades from many critics, but some think that it is a pretentious work. Ron Rosenbaum laid the opera's lyrics to waste in his critique on Slate. Composer and critic Greg Sandow has followed that blast with a salvo of his own.

Here's an exerpt from Sandow's article:

"When I saw it, I thought I'd sensed exactly what the problem is. The piece, for me, carries a constant subtext about its own significance. "This is strong, important art." All that, of course, is reinforced by the opera's presence at the Met, by its subject, by Adams' reputation, and by the New Yorker printing part of Adams' newly published memoir, to coincide with the production. But beyond all that, the piece itself seems to say that it's important.

Which meant, for me, that it felt pretentious, especially since (and here's where I most strongly agree with Rosenbaum) it doesn't say very much. In fact, it's very safe. It shows us something that's well-known, and much discussed -- the shock of the first atomic bomb, the feeling that something dangerous had been unleashed, and the doubts of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the effort to create the bomb. None of this is new, to put it mildly, and the opera had nothing new to say about it. Oppenheimer is distressed. Well, we knew that, and no matter how powerfully he sings about that at the end of the first act -- to the text of a John Donne poem which, like much of the libretto, only tangentially touches what was going on -- we still haven't learned or even felt anything that we (as a society) haven't gone through many times before."

As part of my upcoming trip to New York City as part of the NEA Arts Jounalism Institute, I'll get to see "Dr. Atomic" for myself. I've sung two of Adams' works in the past ("Harmonium" and "On the Transmigration of Souls") and have heard two versions of his opera "Nixon in China." So, I'm looking for to experiencing the Met production.

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