The Damnation of Dr. Atomic

The Damnation of Dr. Atomic

Can an anti-war opera be reactionary? This question crossed my mind as I watched the recent production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“Reactionary” usually means backward-looking or backward—doing, but it implies more—a response to ideas or actions or an epoch or a combination of these. Think of how conservatives exploited some reactions to the 1960s. Their capital grew by ascribing all woes to that decade’s rebellions. They offered an alternative cosmology—the 1950s. Everything was well ordered in that decade. We had Oklahoma!, not the Rolling Stones, in this reverie of resentment. Its purview left out, just for one example, what might happen to an African American who sat in the front of a Birmingham bus. Came the 1960s, conservatives—some liberals too—damned “pot smoking draft-dodgers” rather than those who sent soldiers to southeast Asia. Came 1980 and a movie star of yesteryear led a “conservative revolution.”

The Left and many liberals reacted, rightly so, against conformism, discrimination, a war. Some came to interpret everything through the experience, sometimes real and sometimes imagined, of the “1960s” as if time never goes by—or as if it moves back and forth only to those years. Did you know that Baghdad is in Vietnam? And that Vietnam is not far from Los Alamos? This is the sense in which Doctor Atomic is reactionary.

The opera blends considerable musical imagination by a leading classical composer with a libretto by controversial director Peter Sellars. It is appealing, prima facie, if you think, as I do, that something was wrong about dropping atom bombs on cities. Yet the more you delve into this opera, the more it brings to mind Bernard Shaw’s characterization of W.S. Gilbert: he looked beneath the surface of things but, stuck there, couldn’t see through them.

Librettos for Adams’s operas are ambitious. Read his congenial 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction and you will see how important politics is for him. California based, his music draws many attractive features from the rebellious spirit of the 1960s. Its genres are varied, and his styles are usually called “minimalist” or “post-minimalist.” In one way or another, he seeks alternatives to the twentieth century’s “atonal” avant-garde. In simplest terms, Schönberg made the twelve notes of the octave equal and composed out of rows (“series”) of notes with no single tone organizing them. Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez went beyond this to compose all aspects of a work in “serial” form. American composer Milton Babbitt took this even further using mathematical equations.

Adams recounts how as a young composer, he felt “between a rock and a hard place.” He loved the Beatles’s harmonies and found the serial avant-garde an aural “bed of nails.” Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus is germane to Adams in a...