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Opera Daily 🎶 — Doctor Atomic
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This week is all about contemporary opera.
Even though it was close to four months ago, it feels like yesterday that I was chatting with my friend Heather about accessible 20th and 21st-century opera pieces for this community. Even as a trained musician, I felt uncomfortable when she brought it up. The conversation in my head went like this:
Dissonant harmonies? Composers abandoning tonality to emphasize the dramatic nature of a scene? I am trying to get people to LOVE opera, and this will drive them away — no way!
I knew I was wrong, though, as I typed the text to Heather. This week, I am putting my shortsightedness and preferences aside (and a fear that a quick departure for a moment from the classical and romantic periods will cause you to unsubscribe just as things are about to get good around here!) and sharing something a bit different.
In the same way that “In quelle trine morbide”, the soprano aria from Manon Lescaut has the power to tug at our heartstrings, and deeply affect our feelings in some way, opera of the 20th and 21st-century (and beyond) give us permission to explore deeper human questions. Oh, opera, what a timeless and perfect mechanism for telling stories.
Today we’re listening to “Am I in your light?” Kitty's aria from Act I of the opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams. Julia Bullock, an American soprano, is singing the role of Kitty here. Nonesuch Records released this premiere recording of Doctor Atomic in June 2018.
I have been listening to this piece for two days, and I can’t get the music out of my head. This piece is intoxicating. After the dark music of the scientists discussing the bomb at the beginning of the opera, this aria comes in like a ray of sunshine. ☀️
🎧 Listen here (4 minute listen):
John Adams’ operas, usually done in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, albeit successful, are controversial. Instead of writing dialogue for Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars arranged excerpts from historical documents about the development of the atomic bomb and literature associated with the characters’ real-life.
Doctor Atomic takes place during the summer of 1945, before the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. The main characters are the physicist and Manhattan Project director, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer; his wife Kitty; Edward Teller; and General Leslie Groves, the US Army commander of the project. The first act centers around the pros and cons of dropping the first atom bomb. The second act is the waiting around in the New Mexico desert for the first bomb to explode.
Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, are alone at home and Oppenheimer is preoccupied reading reports. Kitty asks him: “Am I in your light?” This aria gives us a window into Kitty’s character and her desperate attempt for an escape from the daily life of the Manhattan Project and to connect with her husband.
This light is thick with birds, and evening warns us beautifully of death. Slowly I bend over you, slowly your breath runs rhythms through my blood as if I said I love you and you should raise your head. Listening, speaking into the covert night: Did someone say something?
Love, am I in your light? Am I?
In the years after World War II, a whole generation of young avant-garde composers viewed opera with skepticism. Though some composers continued to write operas in the same style as the hundreds of years prior, others took the opportunity to reconsider basic assumptions about dramatic structure and music’s role within it. I guess you could say anything goes for opera composers in the 21st century?
On the night before the first atomic test, Oppenheimer had a book of poems by Charles Baudelaire in his pocket. Excerpts from Baudelaire’s work have been incorporated into Peter Sellars’s final libretto for Doctor Atomic.
John Adams often writes about contemporary and historical events. Nixon in China, his first opera, from 1987, explores Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China and his meeting with Chairman Mao.
I think opera is in danger of marginalizing itself as a really important and decisive element on the cultural radar screen. And I think if opera is actually going to be a part of our lives and if operas are going to express what it means to be alive right now as an American in 2005 with the kind of, you know, anxieties and consciousness that we carry around with us, I think it has to deal with contemporary topics. I think that the atomic bomb, in particular, is an intensely important theme because the moment that bomb went off we switched. The human species changed from being a part of all the other species who are sort of living on this planet to the medium or the instrument through which the Earth potentially could be destroyed.
-John Adams on NPR’s All Things Considered, October 7, 2005
Thank you again for listening,
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