DR. ATOMIC: A Very Short Review

To be accurate, DR. ATOMIC is not a comic book, but a modern opera. However, the title fits in perfectly here, and there are no interesting comics this week anyway. It should be of interest to readers of this site, since the opera is about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb in 1945. And for writers DR. ATOMIC is a great petri dish of plot and character.

Relentlessly highbrow, opera is arguably the reverse of comic books, and modern opera is tough sledding for nearly everbody with its atonality and lack of ‘a hummable tune’. DR. ATOMIC is exactly what you would expect an new opera to be — lots of singing. There are fascinating characters — physicists Oppenheimer and Teller, the General in charge of the bomb project, and many minor characters at Los Alamos. There is a story in there, about the development of the bomb — will it be a successful test? Will the explosion set off a chain reaction that destroys Earth’s atmosphere and all life? Will it ever quit raining so that we can launch, or will the wind sweep all the fallout the wrong way and depopulate New Mexico? Will the Japanese hear of the project, and by the way is it OK to drop the bomb on them?

But all the characters do is sing about it. They don’t do anything; there is no action at all. There is conflict but it drives nobody to deal with it. It is as if all the elements of a story are rolling around loose, beads on a tray. Interesting and important beads, but nobody has strung them together into a necklace.

It is only fair to say that modern opera demands no necklace; what I have described makes opera fans perfectly happy. It bugs the heck out of novelists, however. We are making unreasonable demands that the form is not going to meet. But since we have all the beads here, suppose I string them into a couple strands?

For instance: There is a bit in which a young military officer, the weatherman, is pressured by the General to make a good forecast; either it quits raining or he’ll be court-martialed. This is apparently historical, but it’s so deliciously unreasonable that it is obvious to me that the young weatherman should crack under the pressure. Egged on by the Native Americans who are singing about the morality of the bomb, and given the idea by all the security guys fretting about the Japanese, the young weatherman phones the Japanese Embassy. (You can imagine it on the stage, the sound of the old-fashioned phone ringing at the other end, and finally a female voice, “Konichi-wa?” Aaaand curtain.)

Or, in line with more traditional opera plots, he falls in love with either Mrs. Oppenheimer (soprano, in some delightfully sexy period costumes) or Paquita the Native American maid (contralto). They elope to Tokyo with the plans.

Or how about (because the young weatherman is actually not that interesting) Dr. Oppenheimer himself, already referred to in the libretto as unstable? The Mrs. and the maid pour out the concerns of the common people to him; worried that the entire population of New Mexico if not the world is in danger he absconds with the plans, or even the bomb itself, to Tokyo. A great analogy here, between Oppenheimer and the workings of the bomb itself, unstable elements which can either explode productively or disastrously.

You can see that in the pursuit of a good plot one of the things immediately thrown over the side is the historical events themselves. Obviously the test went off fine; they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nobody called the Embassy or absconded to Tokyo. There’s a great story in there but it didn’t appear on the stage at DR. ATOMIC.

The other thing you can see is that the beads are strung together with causality. Words like “and therfore” or “because of this” are the connectors. You put them together into logical patterns pointing in one direction or another.

The fiction writer has to do two things: make the beads (interesting, important!) and then string them together. Not necessarily in that order either. Writers often invent charaters or events because the plot calls for them; the job then is to be sure they stand on their own, interesting and important, and are not just spear carriers. In a historical fiction the beads exist already and the trick is to string them together nicely. Read a couple of historical novels on the same subject — Alexander, say, or Abraham Lincoln — and you can see that the same beads can be organized into quite different and unique configurations.

In the case of DR. ATOMIC, opera length is just not very effective.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


DR. ATOMIC: A Very Short Review — 10 Comments

  1. Do you enjoy opera at all? I do, and I disagree with some of these statements, so maybe we have different backgrounds shaping our expectations. At least I hope so, because I was excited about Dr Atomic 🙁

    F’rex, “modern opera is tough sledding for nearly everbody with its atonality and lack of ‘a hummable tune’.”

    If you mean modern as in 20th Century, I think quite a lot it’s tonal and hummable. Lately my shower’s been echoing with passages from Glass’ Satyagraha and Balada’s Christopher Columbus 🙂 However, while those have plots, they’re not plot- or action-driven as I think you’re describing. They’re more ideas works, which is something I enjoy in literature as well as opera, and that’s an approach I’ve hoped would work well for Dr Atomic. I *can* easily believe it might come across as static as you say, but if we disagree on modern opera in general, maybe there’s still hope I’ll feel differently about it.

  2. Not having seen or heard Dr. Atomic yet, I wonder how much of the problem is in the particular production, and how much is in the Adams? For a very young opera, I thought it curious that the Met production is very different from a West Coast debut. Apparently some if the differences are controversial.

    Or perhaps it’s the Adams. For reasons I can’t explain, I haven’t been able to get into him yet. OTOH I very much enjoyed Mark Adamo’s Little Women, so it’s not that I cn’t relate to *some* atonal work…


  3. I would say that DR ATOMIC is definitely an idea work, as you suggest. The characters are obviously mulling over major issues: the morality of the bomb, the course of the war, and so forth. The creators put in a number of things — quotations from Donne and South Asian mythology — that enhance this. That the ideas don’t lead to any action is not a bug, it’s a feature. Like I say, it doesn’t bother the opera mavens at all.
    It is also a good sign that opera creators are dealing with modern historical material. I love the idea that NIXON IN CHINA was created while Nixon was still alive. Somewhere there is a short story (written by somebody more in tune with modern opera) about an elderly Tricky Dick himself, sitting incognito in the nosebleed seats, adjusting his hearing aid and trying to reconcile what’s going on down on the stage with what he remembers of his China visit.

  4. “Somewhere there is a short story (written by somebody more in tune with modern opera)”

    Ha–I would love to read that.

  5. Damn, I hope this does not mean I have to write it. It would involve not only seeing the opera several times (surely it is on DVD?) but reading up on Nixon and China. I wrote a short story about Odysseus once, and only just was able to avoid reading Joyce’s ULYSSES.
    And, where’s the plot? We have here the cool beads of character and situation and setting again, but what do we string them onto?

  6. I’m afraid I can’t agree. I tend not to like John Adams, and I HATED DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER, but this fascinated me.

    I admit it. I’m an operagoer of the sort who’ll compare performances of Rings and spend four consecutive evenings sitting through one. My tastes are pretty remorselessly classical, and I don’t like atonal or minimalist music except…except…

    I had the opportunity to see and hear this live with a musicologist and two physicists. We had brunch at the Grand Tier at the Met and actually heard a group of Berkeley physicists enjoy a presentation of speech clips and an explanation by John Adams. They were tremendously helpful.

    I thought the tension and the exposure of the moral and psychological fault lines worked fine, and the end, when the stage went dark, and a Japanese woman asked for water for herself and her child — I was crying the way I cry at Puccini.

    Did I expect to like it? No. Could I appreciate it technically? Hell yes. Oppenheimer’s aria, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” is astonishing. The staging WAS different from the West Coast staging, so I can’t compare them. The desert looked rather Julie Taymor-ish. The Bomb was terrifying but looked more like the mirror sculpture in the Met’s foyer than Fat Man or Little Boy. The Native American chorus was beautiful, elegiac, and helpless. The General showed a surprising conscience. I liked everyone being in cubicles, with the old IDs

    It was not an emotional appreciation, however, not until the end. But if opera is to live, and not be a fossil, it’s got to try things. CARMEN was a flop in its day. So were others we now love.

    I got my ticket’s worth, as well as enough for my mind, ears, and heart.

  7. RfP: Thanks for pointing me to that clip. I liked it, and I guess I’ll have to see if I can rent a DVD or something. (I’d rather not just listen to an opera until I’m familiar with it.)

    But like Susan, I couldn’t take what I saw of Klinghoffer on Ovation (before they went commercial.) I found the music abrasive.

    I can’t articulate why I like some modern opera and not others. I was enthralled (or at least hypnotized) by Satyagraha and as mentioned, I loved Little Women (NOT the Broadway show — the 12-tone opera.) I like a lot of minimalist music without words, but sometimes when vocals are added, I glaze over. (Glass no exception.)

    Anyhoo, I suspect I’ll have to give both Nixon and Dr. Atomic a try eventually. I’ve always been fascinated by Oppenheimer stories.

    I guess somethings strike me at a certain moment in my life and others take time or never grab hold. It took me three tries to get into Dhalgren but eventually we synced up and I loved it.

    Hmm — Dhalgren the opera… Who should compose that?

  8. I suppose it is deceptive to look back at any artistic field — you only see the great peaks. The casual consumer thinks of the Beatles and the Stones, and all those bands who were number 27 on the top 40 list in 1971 are never considered. As I recall, NIXON IN CHINA has been produced a number of times. Is KLINGHOFFER really popular in opera circles?

  9. The story is really well done, and I like the characters. Teller is such a great villain, all he needs is a mustache to twist. The acting is super, and the set really works well.

    The words the singers were given created a huge problem,however. Many are from memos or notebooks of the time. As a scientist, I often write in that language and may sometimes even speak that way. But that kind of stuff can’t be sung, even by people as talented as this cast.
    (Reading memos is a singing voice is not singing.)
    Because the text is aggressively non-musical, it can’t be set to a melody. Adams makes no attempt to do so. I would happily grant him the artistic license to make the necessary changes in the words.