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A Report: Nixon, Oppenheimer, Faust, and John Adams at Yale

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , ,

In October we were very pleased to present Jenny Blair's account of Platon's New Yorker Festival event. Today Blair has volunteered to bring us a detailed report of a fascinating lecture by the composer John Adams in New Haven, which occurred last week.—Martin Schneider

Jenny Blair writes:

The composer John Adams visited Yale University last week to give the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values.* This writer attended the second of the two lectures, held at the Whitney Humanities Center on October 29. (In the first, the composer discussed Thomas Mann's fictional composer in the novel Dr. Faustus.)

A fine-featured and slender man with arching sprouts of white hair and a gracious manner, Adams spoke to a near-capacity crowd about the way that myth informs his operas. Though he is famed in part for having dramatized Nixon's visit to China and, more recently, for the 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, which dramatizes the hours before the first atomic bomb was detonated, Adams is annoyed when he hears himself referred to as a "political composer" or his operas called "docu-operas." Such appellations would seem to miss the point, which is that he seeks out universal themes within the famous particular. Events in history, he said, can rise to a mythic level, and these myths are a proper hunting ground for his music. "The themes I choose," he said, "are not simply mere news, but rather human events that have become mythology. . . . [They are] a symbolic expression of collective experience."

"Biography, history, and science have come to constitute our own myths," he said, naming as examples Gandhi, Babe Ruth, 9/11, and the moon landing. "Andy Warhol understood the grip that iconic images have on us, . . . [such as] Elvis with a six-shooter, the electric chair, Marilyn Monroe."

An indispensable element of myth is the supernatural, Adams said, and there is something about the media's incessant repetition and manipulation of images and events that supernaturalizes those events. "When they saturate public consciousness, they become totemic. . . . [Some] rise to the status of myth." Whether we know it or not, he said, we of the electronic age are saturated in myth.

9/11 is a classic case in point. Even with the same number of deaths, he said, "had it been a one-story warehouse somewhere in New Jersey, I don't think that totemic power would have invaded public consciousness." The endlessly replayed video clip of the Twin Towers' collapse, he said, was a ritualistic reenactment.

It was Peter Sellars, director of the first, highly acclaimed production of Doctor Atomic, who suggested that Adams write an opera about Nixon's iconic visit to China. At the time, Adams had been composing music about Carl Jung, and had even made a pilgrimage to the psychiatrist's home in Switzerland. But he recognized the story of Nixon's trip as "full to the brim with myths." Capitalist meets Communist. Presidential vanitas. The narratives and personae created by people in power—this story had it all. "Both Mao and Nixon had made themselves into grandiose cartoons."

Adams read aloud a portion of Alice Goodman's Nixon in China libretto, in which Nixon is speaking. (One suspects he held back a rip-roaring mimicry.) Then he parsed it like a poem, noting references to 1930s ballads, Chekhov, and Apollo 11. A recording of the same passage as sung by original cast member James Maddalena was then played, and Adams, as he listened, made muted conductor-like waves of his bowed head.

To critics who charge that subjects like the atomic bomb or terrorism (a subject he treated in The Death of Klinghoffer, his 1991 opera based on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro) are events too serious to be appropriate for theater, Adams replies that such things are the stuff of myth. Moreover, terrorism, with its suicide bombers and innocent victims, is already a kind of theater. And as for Trinity, "there is no more emphatic image to [sum up] the human predicament than the atomic bomb. . . . That day, science and human invention sprang instantaneously to mythic levels." Initially, Adams said, he had wanted to draw a parallel between J. Robert Oppenheimer and the soul-selling Faust of Goethe's drama. But he eventually came to decide that inaction during the war would have required complete pacifism and an acceptance of "a long dark night of the soul," whereas the Los Alamos scientists were devoted to winning a war against tyranny.

Yet once they built the bomb, said Adams, "the relationship between the human species and the planet irrevocably changed. It was a seismic event in human consciousness. . . . [Humankind now had the ability] to destroy its own nest." Indeed, the physicist Edward Teller, in a letter Adams read aloud, wrote, "I have no hope of clearing my conscience. . . . No amount of fiddling . . . will save our souls."

The libretto of Doctor Atomic was greeted by a torrent of criticism in the press for its unusual use of both natural language (as lifted from primary sources, like letters and biographies) and poetry, as well as a perceived lack of "verismo" in some of the arias. But Adams pointed out that not all operas are like Strauss or Wagner. The arias of Monteverdi and Mozart were written purely for poetic effect and stepped out of narrative time—as did Adams's.

The composer ended his lecture with a few words about the first act's final aria and a video of its performance by "my wonderful, wonderful" baritone, Gerald Finley. This aria takes place the night before the Trinity test, after an electrical storm has threatened the test. The music before this had flirted with atonality, Adams said, but the aria itself is in D minor, which conveys the "noble gravitas" of the poem. The storm blows over at last, and Oppenheimer is left alone with his thoughts. He sings a lightly adapted Donne sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." The choice of this poem reinforces Adams's decision not to compare Oppenheimer to Faust, for in it the narrator longs to reunite with God:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; For you
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe
Shine, and seek to mend;
Batter my heart, three person'd God;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

After thunderous applause—the kind that tempts you to stand up and start an ovation—audience members stepped up to the microphones to ask questions. Highlights, lightly paraphrased:

Q: "Please give me water—my child is thirsty" were spoken as the last words of the opera. Why?
A: I realized I needed to hear the other side. Those words came from John Hersey's Hiroshima. The woman who did the recording was a California university student, Japanese, and had a lot of piercings and tattoos.

Q: There are things in your opera that are fictional. For example, Kitty Oppenheimer is portrayed as the embodiment of the feminine principle, but Kitty was not like that at all. She was not a good mother; she left Oppenheimer; she ferociously wanted the project to succeed.
A: The real Nixon is to the operatic Nixon as the real Julius Caesar was to Shakespeare's version. We're working in the poetic realm. Moreover, I don't agree with you about Kitty Oppenheimer. According to American Prometheus [Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's biography of Robert Oppenheimer], she was incredibly unhappy at Los Alamos. She was a scientist relegated to faculty-wife status. Anyway, I don't see why a person who has character flaws can't have profound human and moral feelings about war.

Q: The Kitty material is presented too densely for my taste.
A: I, too, have some difficulties with Muriel Rukeyser [the poet whose words appeared in the libretto during Kitty's parts]. Poetry is unknowable—each of us brings to it our own personal experience. As for density, check out Othello. Works of art can be dense. It could be that over time people find that density to be something they can really chew on.

Q: Why did you repeat text in the sonnet? It's not a sonnet anymore.
A: Your ear is tuned to prosody, mine to harmonic necessity. Even the Beatles say "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah." The "yeah, yeah, yeah" there is to confirm the phrase. What I don't like to do is melisma. It's a great tradition in opera; it just doesn't suit me as an American.

Q: Is there any subject you feel is prohibited in opera? What student idea would make you feel compelled to say, "This wouldn't work"? What would you feel profoundly uncomfortable treating operatically?
A: If I say nothing, I'm immoral. If I say something, then I'm stuck. Next question!

Q: What are your bulwarks?
A: Sterility is the greatest danger. The theme of Mann's novel Doctor Faustus is sterility. Popular culture is a bulwark against that sterility. Rap. Stravinsky's imagined primitive dance forms. Bartok's hummus of Hungarian sounds. . . . There is raw, uncooked life force in popular culture.

* [There doesn't have to be a connection to The New Yorker for us to run a report of this quality, but for those who crave one, Adams wrote of his early days as a composer in avant-garde Berkeley and San Francisco for the August 28, 2008, issue, and Doctor Atomic was reviewed by Alex Ross on October 27, 2008. —MCS]

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