November 20, 2008
A Night at the Opera
I went with friends to see Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera a couple weeks ago and I really, really didn't like it. My problem was that neither the story/libretto nor the music captivated my attention. So it was three and a half hours of zoning out.
I've liked other music by John Adams, of the lush, repepetitive, tonal, minimal style, and so I blindly went in expecting more of the same, but this was actually an atonal opera. It sounded boring to me, as if they just needed to come up with another note to sing the next word on, without there being any rhyme or reason. I recognize that all music does not have to be purely tonal, but this music just didn't captivate me in any kind of way.
I saw an atonal opera at the Met a couple years ago, American Tragedy by Tobias Picker, and likewise wasn't a big fan of the music, but at least that story kept me plugged in and enjoying the experience.
In theory, the story of Doctor Atomic had great potential. It's about the creators of the atomic bomb in the 1940s, during the month leading up to the first test of the bomb in New Mexico. They both feared and hotly anticipated the test, not knowing if it would fail with a whimper, erroneously destroy the whole planet, or work successfully. What a weighty subject.
However, the libretto didn't bring it all together in the amazing way that it could have. Instead, we had a bunch of people onstage arguing with each other about testing the bomb, interjected with seemingly unrelated painfully long monologues by the male and female counterparts of a couple waxing rhapsodically about love. So then I started to think maybe there was a love story in there too, though I could not for the life of me tell the point of all their rhapsodizing or how it related to the rest of the plot. But no, the Playbill explained those songs are just a married couple "pondering love, life, war, and peace" in the most boring way possible, furthering the plot not one bit. No character development. Nothing.
There were lots of other things about the story that were unclear to me until I read the Playbill at intermission. Maybe it was a mistake to not read the Playbill before watching the opera. Maybe this is just a problem with most opera. But come on - I'm reading the text line by line from a little screen in front of my seat. I shouldn't have to also read a plot summary to know what the fuck is going on. You don't have to read a plot summary while watching a movie or a play - the whole point of the theater is that the action should explain itself to you as it goes along. Am I right?
I only liked one part, the massive Bhagavad Gita choir towards the end. The text "Oh shape stupendous" seems particularly relevant as they wait for the giant bomb to drop, as does the power of the music.
Then when the bomb detonated at the opera's finale, a giant sound emanated out of the speaker behind me that was so loud and went on so long that I felt queasily claustrophobic as if the low reverberating sound was smothering me there in our steep, cramped seats, as if the sound might cause the walls to crack and the building to collapse and tilt and me to go tumbling all the way down. And I'm only 23! How must all of the old people (the majority of opera goers) have felt!? Isn't that a health hazard? Yes, it was making a point about the terror and immense power of the atom bomb, and maybe I'm a wimp, but still.....it could have been 20 seconds shorter.
So the point of the story is - while I will accept atonal music, I don't particularly like it. And just because it's an opera doesn't give you an excuse to not tell a story well.