“The audience in Oedipus Rex knew what was coming,” said Doctor Atomic librettist and director Peter Sellars in his pre-concert lecture at Lyric Opera last night. He was drawing a comparison between Greek drama, when the stories being staged were traditional tales already known to the theatergoers, and Doctor Atomic, which is based on the real-life testing of the first atomic bomb, in 1945. The second half of Sellars’s talk took listeners through the opera scene by scene, describing what would happen, what he thought was great about it, and his anti–nuclear weapons politics.
Those who came early presumably already knew the test weapon was successful, but they knew much more after Sellars’s lecture about where they were headed over the next three and a half hours. This was doubly true for me, seeing as I reported a story for the December issue of the magazine in September and October about the opera “Bomb-La-La-La-La”.
But like a description of a taste to someone who’s never tasted it, anything you can read about Doctor Atomic is wholly separate from the experience of seeing it. Hearing about the drama of the first half’s final aria, Oppenheimer singing Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” doesn’t capture (or spoil) the tableau of the dangling, silhouetted bomb behind a curtain with a brightly lit entrance path, with Oppenheimer alternately approaching and retreating, striking himself in illustration of the sonnet.
I could tell you about the alien choreography accompanying the description of the placement of the detonators on the bomb, when the chorus makes slow, scientific movements while singing eerie melodies. I could tell you about the ineluctable presence of the Damoclean bomb, drawing your eye during lulls in the story to its sinister form, like a hairy, toothy tumor. I could tell you the sounds Adams chose for the moment of the bomb blast throw the protracted waiting and build-up to that moment into horrifying relief. (When I interviewed him for the story, Adams said the sound of a real bomb would be absurd. On the other hand, “You can’t have an opera about a bomb and then not have a bomb,” he said.) But anything I tell you will be like a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional object.
While I can’t make you feel what it’s like to see it, I can tell you what I thought. At times terrifying, heartbreaking, fevered, dilatory, touching, macabre, and unearthly, Doctor Atomic fills its run-time in a way that never betrays the true passage of time. The tension between anticipation and dread is something I’ve never experienced from any other work of art.
Illustration: Sean McCabe