Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dr Atomic

So I saw the John Adams / Peter Sellars Oppenheimer opera yesterday. As most reviewers have said, Openheimer's John Donne Aria at the end of the first act is probably one of the high points of recent classical music. So, even though the main floor was a choppy sea of drooping and abruptly rousing heads -- particularly in the first act -- it was a well spent evening. The person sitting next to me, for example, slept through large chunks of the Opera -- and as Peter Sellars was sitting directly behind me -- I was tempted to nudge my neighbor to show more respect, but then it occured to me that my rapt attention was probably of less interest to the director than knowing which parts were keeping an uninterested audience member awake.

Even more than Nixon in China, the theme was well suited to Sellars' sublime revisitation of the aesthetic successes of Maoist Revolutionary 's opera -- which is to say that the show came most alive when people were singing to the "gadget", but rather than the girl marrying the tractor, it was Oppenheimer using the bomb as a proxy for God.

As the most emotionally moving part of the Opera had Oppenheimer exploring seventeenth century religiosity as a response to twentieth century science, this undercut the press release's and the libretto's suggestion that the bomb had changed the world and made everything new. Twentieth century technology has made it easier to avoid and easier to confront the core issues of humanity, and the suggestion that humanity's core issues had somehow changed because of nuclear technology is the sort of phony profundity that keeps people from seeing the deeper truth that everything is really still the same.

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