The October 1 San Francisco Opera world premiere of Pulitzer
Prize winning composer John Adamsí newest opera, Doctor Atomic, is
unquestionably the most highly anticipated music premiere of the season.
With a libretto by the no holds barred Peter Sellars, the opera addresses
the most significant scientific breakthrough of the 20th century Ė an event
that continues to shape the course of world history.
On August 30, 2005, an hour-long press conference on Doctor
Atomic was held in front of the stage of the San Francisco War Memorial
Opera House. With a replica of the actual atom bomb suspended before us,
members of the press spent an hour with Adams, librettist and director Peter
Sellars, Maestro Donald Runnicles, and San Francisco Opera General Director
Doctor Atomic does far more than paint a picture of the days
leading up to the July 16, 1945 detonation of the bomb at the Alamogordo,
New Mexico test site. Using recently declassified documents and poetry from
the era, it raises essential questions about science, morality, and the
future of the human race.
The p43ww conference was both taped and filmed; some footage
may eventually appear in a documentary on the making of Doctor Atomic. To
the best of my knowledge, this is the first publication of the entire
6500-word transcript. For those attempting to skim, I have highlighted key
portions of the document in bold.
There are only 10 performances of the opera scheduled
between October 1 and October 22. Since the performance will not be taped
for future distribution, tickets are selling fast. For more information, see
Publicity Department Chief Karen Ames: I would like to ask
Maestro Runnicles to give us an update. Now that weíve had about one week of
orchestra rehearsals, how are things going? How is the live
performance/rehearsal process different from what John might have offered
you in the beginning with his computer simulation CD of the score?
Pamela Rosenberg: Iíll try to be brief so these guys who are
much more fascinating on this subject than I am can get going.
John Adams tends to close his ears to this, but this is how
the whole project came about. I was going to be doing a whole Faust series
for the Animating Opera programming here in San Francisco, and wanted to
have an American Faust composed by John Adams. Indeed, my very first act
after having my appointment announced was to set up a luncheon date with
John, who I had idolized from afar but had never had the pleasure of
meeting. It was my lifeís dream to work with him.
John came to luncheon with Kip Cranna and myself. Kip has
worked with him in the past, and facilitated the meeting wonderfully.
When I put it to John, he at first demurred and said he
didnít think he had an opera left in him. Itís a huge amount of work and he
doesnít have a subject matter. I responded that while he could go off in
various directions, my personal choice and idea was Robert Oppenheimer and
the making of the atomic bomb. Or he could think of other ideas for an
When I gave my first talk to the Board of Directors here
after my appointment in October 1999, I had told them about my themes and
idea for Animating Opera and had mentioned the American Faust. I said I
didnít know what it would be as yet, but had thought of Robert Oppenheimer.
A member of our Board came up to me and clinched the deal
for me in my head when he said, "You know, theyíre all sitting across the
Bay there. Theyíre all very old now, and most of them canít sleep at night
because they think of that Genie that they let out of the bottle."
I realized that the idea made double sense to pursue. Weíre
in the Bay Area, and so many of the people who worked on the atomic bomb
have a huge Berkeley connection as either former faculty members or young
scientists who worked on it. But I would have been open for anything John
He went away to think about it, became very intrigued, and
decided (thank God) that he had another opera in him. It was also very clear
to John and to me would happen together Peter who sits with us here now.
Donald Runnicles: Good afternoon. This is a work in
progress. We had five full-scale orchestral readings last week of this
remarkable piece. I can only say that it is a privilege to be something of a
midwife in the delivery of this extraordinary child.
This is, as ever, an intoxicating mix of Johnís intensely
written music. It has an elemental drive thatís quite intoxicating in its
power. There are the most sublimely beautiful moments in this opera. It
really covers the entire gamut of emotions, which indeed mirrors what this
piece certainly does to all those who are taking part in putting it
together, and clearly on all the musicians and all the artists involved
onstage, in the pit, behind stage, etc. It is not lost on the orchestra.
What a thrill it is to not only be the focus of the
international operatic world, but to also be part of the genesis of this
remarkable piece. I believe that is fairly unique in providing this
computer-generated entire opera on this midi. It was an astonishing help
early on, especially when not a note of this was known to anyone, to have
sat with John a few weeks back and have listened to the entire opera.
Clearly this is computer generated, but itís extraordinary what can already
be achieved in terms of mimicking the sound.
What was left to do Ė John will address this too Ė was to
let this computer-generated opera breathe... create a soul for it. Of course,
that has happened at all these rehearsals where John has been present
sitting behind me, sometimes thankfully out of eyeshot [John and Pamela
laugh]. Having lived with it for so long, and all of a sudden giving his
child to me and us, so to speak, must be fairly terrifying.
John is so endearingly self-deprecating about putting his
music together. I like to think of his music as this giant Swiss clocks
where there are many, many cogs which, taken individually perhaps, donít
make a great deal of sense to the person playing them, but, as is often the
case when orchestral musicians come to the library to ask for their music,
look at it and think itís simple and straightforward, only to come to
rehearsal and sit next to someone with a very different cog [all laugh]
perhaps a sixteenth of a note just in advance of theirs. My point being that
one of the biggest challenges in creating this enormous sonic landscape is
putting it all together and giving everyone a feel for their context in the
As I say, I refer to it as this giant Swiss clock. John
refers to it as dental care [John laughs] in terms of taking the music
apart, and addressing this and addressing that. I think he even spoke about
root canal. Heís extremely modest and self-deprecating about himself Ė
certainly not about his music Ė but we are all thrilled to be part of this.
We are also all intensely disturbed by the impact this piece
is having on us. This is an extremely healthy phenomenon that Iím sure John
and hopefully Peter will address. Itís disturbing because it is so, so
relevant. While this addresses something that happened over 60 years ago,
much of it resonates even louder today.
Pamela, hats off to you. I can speak on behalf of the entire
company for having yet again shown your vision. Working with these gentleman
next to me is an enormous privilege.
John, would you like to speak?
John Adams: Thank you Donald. I will say that I think
obviously this is a very emotional time for a composer. Youíve been living
with this for two years Ė actually five years since Pamela first suggested
it to me. To finally see the set and Peterís vision of this, and to hear the
music come together with these singers... itís gone from my little tinkly
piano to real flesh and blood singers.
I think the most moving thing of all in the past week has
been seeing the dynamic between Donald and the opera orchestra. Heís one of
the most humble conductors in a profession that does not sprout humility to
often. Thereís such a genuine affection on the part of the players for
Donald. Itís really wonderful to observe that happening in the course of
them having to do some really difficult, difficult work.
I would say that the first three or four rehearsals were
really like trying to find a light switch in a dark room. They donít know
how their part fits into the part of the person sitting next to them, and
they donít know how in Godís name that fits into the story about a bomb.
Each person is looking at 8 bars rest and then a series of notes and then
another 8 bar rest. If youíve ever seen what a timpani player, a piccolo
player, or a second trombone player has in front of them, itís this
meaningless bit of abstract information on a page. And yet weíre asking them
to fit in to this whole scene with same intensity and involvement that Kris
Jepson or Gerry Finley or James Maddalena is putting out on the stage.
Itís really up to the conductor to generate that level of
commitment and seriousness. As Iíve often said to people, my life has come
down to dealing with conductors and their vanity, and their covering up for
not knowing the score. Itís been a special privilege to be able to work with
you on this, Donald.
I would also like to say that my biggest worry has been that
this is such a great topic for an opera that I havenít done it justice. I
did think that Iíd never write another Grand Opera because itís so much
work. Unless the story really warrants it, youíre better off doing something
When Pamela Rosenberg suggested the topic to me, I went out
and started reading. Then, when Peter came in with his enormous intellect
and imagination and started me other ways of looking at the story, I
realized, "Oh wow, this is the theme for an American opera. There is no
This is the Gotterdammerung of American culture. Oops, I see
the headline already. Scratch that [All laugh].
Pamela Rosenberg: Erase, erase...
John Adams: My great concern is that I simply havenít been
up to it. I hope maybe that Iíve at least come to the base of it. Perhaps as
a group effort that involves everyone here, weíll at least come within
spitting distance of what it might be.
Peter Sellars: John has actually written Gotterdammerung for
a time when the end of the world is not a mythic image. It is a reality. For
Wagner, it could be an archetype. It could come from some pre-dawn. For us,
itís the dawn.
This is the 21st century. Johnís music flows a little faster
than Wagnerís because the clock is moving much faster. That intensity of
every second, where so much is at stake, is what is spectacularly achieved
in John Adamsí music, moment by moment, second by second.
In the countdown to the detonation of the bomb, at zero
minus one minute, John has written four minutes of music. What music does is
convey the time inside of time, where itís not just as the clock moves, but
itís whatís inside those seconds. What is at stake for every one of us every
one of those seconds. And when those seconds are marked by a womanís chorus
singing, so you get the human lives inside every second, it takes an
abstract image and actually puts it directly into your body clock, which is
where it is.
Weíre all so numbed by apocalypse right now in popular
culture and political meltdown that we decide to get on with our lives and
not deal with it. And in fact, huge swaths of the electorate keep electing
people who claim they can turn the clock back. The clock wonít turn back.
This opera is the 20th century moving forward. Johnís music
contains Stravinsky, Wagner, Varese, Henry Purcell, Palestrina... but itís all
John Adams. The entire history of music to this point and beyond is here,
because of course this project represents the entire history of human
knowledge making an incredible breakthrough in the cosmology of
understanding the Universe.
The libretto consists primarily of material taken from
documentary sources, in many cases previously classified documents that have
now been declassified. Believe me, there is nothing more satisfying than
having something that the US government did not want its own citizens to
hear or read set for chorus and orchestra by John Adams. It is extremely
satisfying. And when the chorus comes to the front of the stage and declares
in full voice something that you are not supposed to hear, you remember what
this art form is about.
The operatic art form is about secrets understood and
recognized across a whole society... what it means to come to the biggest
theater in the center of town across from City Hall and say who are we as a
people, what are we as a nation, what is our destiny thatís larger than any
one of our individual lives. Thatís what opera is about. Opera is about a
pregnant art form that includes us all but is larger than any one of us. It
is the simultaneous presence of multiple voices, multiple possibilities.
Opera is democracy itself at work, where a second trombone
player is as important and as necessary as anyone in the room. They have to
do what they do with all of their heart and soul. Our democracy hasnít
experienced that for a long time: when all the parts are working, where all
the parts are equally valued, and all the multiple possibilities are as
charged with purpose and hope. At this time, itís very important to put
something in public that is American and talks about us as Americans with
the depth of Johnís music resonating through real poetry.
The other half of the libretto that is not US government
documents is poetry, primarily by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), the great
poet of the mid-20th century who did not kill herself. She went to attended
the School of Ethical Culture in New York City. Her classmate was Frank
Oppenheimer; Robert Oppenheimer was two classes ahead. She was part of this
In the thirties and forties, she wrote about science. In the
fifties, she was investigated by the McCarthy Committee, in the sixties she
was seen prominently at rallies against the Vietnam War. She was a
courageous American voice. If youíre wondering what intelligent women were
thinking during these years, Muriel Rukeyser is one of the great voices.
The voices for the scientistsí wives Ė the voices for Kitty
Oppenheimer Ė the voices for the poetic and cosmic dimension are provided by
Muriel Rukeyser. And of course, Baudelaire. Oppenheimer had a copy of
Baudelaire in his coat pocket at the test site during the detonation. In
fact, Oppie and Kitty communicated to each other in a secret code from
Baudelaire that the security guards could not penetrate. And the Bhagavad
Gita is in there as well. Oppenheimer himself studied Sanskrit in order to
read the Bhagavad Gita in the original, and the Sanskrit text was always in
his office and he quoted from it frequently.
Very powerfully, the site was named Trinity. How do you name
the place where youíre going to set off an atomic bomb? Trinity. Robert
Oppenheimer brought that from John Donneís sonnet, "Batter my heart, three
person God," which forms the Act One finale, out in the desert, alone, at 2
AM, as an atomic bomb and an electrical storm rage.
Pamela Rosenberg: Could you just in a nutshell talk about
the two weeks...
Peter Sellars: Let me give you the big picture of what is
going on here. Weíre thrilled that we have among our collaborators the
great, pioneering, visionary choreographer Lucinda Childs. It was very
important to invite someone who was a path-breaker, who created a body of
work and a language that could not be mistaken for anything else, in the
spirit of American pioneers. Lucinda is right here with us. She has been
creating dances that really give the full vision of Johnís rhythms, because
for me, one of the most amazing things is that Johnís music is so delicious
to listen to. The audience is frequently unaware of the complexity that is
going on inside the mechanism. What is amazing is that, like Ballanchine
having you look at Stravinsky, Lucinda has created a way in which you can
see the dazzling complexity of these rhythms spinning and spiraling in and
out of each other. The vision of it is quite stunning.
Adrianne Lobell has designed the set, and the others who do
the costumes and lighting are the same team that did Nixon in China. You
have again this kind of amazing, crystalline looks of the Ď40s, just coming
out of the WPA period, those bold clean lines like a Martha Graham, Isamu
Noguchi work -- shocking, stark clear.
Itís not an accident, of course, that the image is Japanese.
You get this pale sticks in the desert look.
The entire project of course was improvised. Everything was
last minute and whatever was available was used. So you watch everything
constructed onstage from nothing. All the pieces are assembled because
thatís truly what happened. So itís Grand Opera where the ideas are grand,
the consequences are grand, but in fact the people are just people in a
large desert -- the human scope that gives you the Shakespearean image of a
single human being who is gigantic in the cosmos. And again, those moral
stakes having the same proportion is what this piece offers.
The San Francisco Opera has done something quite
astonishing. We are five weeks before the premiere, and weíve got the full
set to rehearse in every day with full lighting. Itís astonishing what weíre
able to do here. We really are seeing the whole opera.
Weíre rehearsing the entire month of August. The dancers
have been going for a while. The San Francisco Opera has really invested in
this world premiere, so weíre able to do it with astonishing care and
Pamela Rosenberg: Itís from the 8th for the dancers and the
19th for the singers, which is not quite the whole month of August.
Peter Sellars: It feels like an eternity.
Pamela Rosenberg: John, the words that you use to describe
what goes on in the two weeks that comprise the life of this opera always
hold urgency. Theyíre as compelling as these puppies, as you call them Ė the
4000 people gathered in this fenced off area that was supposed to be secret.
John all refers to most of the ones running around, who were all incredible
minds, as puppies, because the average age of those scientists was 22.
John, could you atmospherically describe whatís going on in
the piece for those various characters, and what the urgency was?
The chorus that Peter referred to, which sings a classified
document, actually was a letter formulated by 20 of these young scientists,
because the bomb was maybe not actually necessary. There had been this
intense sense of urgency, because they felt the Germans were ahead of them
in making the bomb. So the bomb was being developed to defeat Hitler.
Meanwhile, Hitler had been defeated. Twenty of these young
scientists wrote to Truman saying, "Donít drop the bomb on the Japanese
population. We need to test it someplace where there are no human beings."
Their letter never made it to Truman. Somebody in the
military establishment put it in a drawer and locked the key. It was
classified, and it was only a few years ago that it became declassified. The
letter that was intended for Truman he never heard weíre going to hear.
John, could you speak a bit about the sequence in the opera?
John Adams: As usual, Peter and I started out with much
grander plans. We want to have a timeline that was nothing less than years,
and we always end up boiling things down to 18 hours, or in the case of
Nixon and China, three days, and in the case of El Nino, 9 months.
Here, the time frame is very compact. The very first scene
takes place at the end of June, and virtually the rest of the opera is the
night before leading up to the detonation of the worldís first atomic bomb,
which was at dawn on the 16th of July 1945. Most of the opera goes from
about midnight to the detonation, which was at roughly 6 AM in the morning.
I like that sort of compactness because, on the one hand,
temporarily itís very neat, but on the other hand, as Peter pointed out, I
can stretch things, so that something that in real time takes a minute on
the stage might take 15 minutes.
There was incredible pressure on these physicists coming
from the White House Ėfrom Truman and the very top Heads of State Ė to prove
on this night, this very date, that we had the atomic bomb. The European war
was over. As this was happening, Truman and Churchill were meeting with
Stalin in Potsdam, and they were basically carving up the post-war world.
Stalin had already indicated that on the 15th of August, which would be
exactly a month away, he was going to join in the Japanese war, and the
Allies would then have to pay Stalin very, very dearly for it. He would
probably demand Manchuria.
Truman wanted a kind of blow back weapon. He wanted to be
able to say to Stalin, as he finally did when he got the news that the bomb,
worked, that we have a weapon of extraordinary power and basically back off.
Of course, as we found out later, Stalin knew all about it, because right in
the middle of Los Alamos, one of the closest, dearest friends of
Oppenheimer, Klaus Fuchs, was working right along knowing everything, and he
was a spy for the Russians. But thatís not in our opera.
Then there is a love scene that follows the first scene of
Act One. Itís a moment of great tenderness between Oppenheimer and his wife
Kitty. For that, Peter really brilliantly suggested poetry that the two of
them loved. Kitty expresses herself through the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser,
who was a contemporary in so many ways, both politically and in terms of
their background, and then Oppenheimer, who could also be very stagy Ė and I
could imagine him being quite stagy as theyíre making love Ė quotes
Baudelaire: perfumed, exotic distance places, and burying his face in her
hair, and smelling like musk and tobacco, and far off ships at sea, etc.
etc. I really had a wonderful opportunity to make the orchestra pit just
Peter Sellars: It should be boil over.
John Adams: One of the things Iím pleased about, and that
really sets Doctor Atomic apart from anything that Iíve ever done, is that
Iíve incorporated to a great extent what I call a "sound design." I did a
similar thing in my work On the Transmigration of Souls, the piece the New
York Philharmonic asked me to do to commemorate 9-11. But in Doctor Atomic,
Iíve gone much further with it.
Iíve incorporated some jazz songs from the 1940s to give the
sense and texture of the time and place. I would say that my guardian angel
is Edgar Varese because, for me, Vareseís music was the original post
nuclear holocaust sound.
I actually open the opera with a musique concrete
composition that I made entirely from power tools. I feel when Iím
surrounded by it that Iím in one of Ernest Lawrenceís electronic
accelerators. That sets the tone.
Itís followed by the Overture, with its kind of homage to
Varese, that leads into the opening chorus, which is taken from this book,
published in 1945, called Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. Part of the
first chapter is the first line of text I set in the opera.
The author says there are two principles that have been
cornerstones of the structure of modern science. This is what I set. Matter
can neither be created nor destroyed, but altered in form. Energy can
neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered in form. Thatís the very
opening of the opera.
Now, last week I received an anxious e-mail from a retired
physics professor at Cal saying, well, thatís not exactly true [laughter],
but Iíve since said, well, this is a period piece [more laughter], so Iím
going with what this book said.
We donít have the sound system weíll have on opening night,
but this will give you a little idea of what youíll hear. Itís the Power
Tool prelude, followed by some of the music of the opening overture [Plays
selection to give us a little taste].
Pamela Rosenberg: The rest of the opera leads up to and
includes the detonation of the bomb. Do you want to say a little bit about
[The press liaison interrupts the press conference due to
time restraints. The conference must end on time so that rehearsal can
continue. We shift to questions].
Question: Iím Dave Pearlman from the San Francisco
Chronicle. How do you see in the opera the relationship between Teller and
Oppenheimer? Does the question of the Super arises in the opera?
John Adams: Actually, the question about the Super, which
was Edward Tellerís obsession, does come up in Scene One.
I think that Teller has been a kind of basically negative
iconographic figure in American culture, or at least for people in the arts.
It was assumed, as it probably was assumed about our treatment of Richard
Nixon, that it turned him some kind of Iago. But what I discovered early on
was that Teller had been invited by Oppenheimer and was younger than
Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was very fond of him Ė I could even say probably
that he loved him Ė but he understood that Teller was a difficult person and
did not work well in groups.
This comes out in the libretto. Tellerís constant obsession
with the Super, which was the hydrogen bomb, was something that became
somewhat of a thorn in the sides of this frantic quest for completion of
this particular, simpler design.
One thing that impressed me very much was that I learned
early on that Los Alamos was literally a camp in the woods. There was no
plumbing, no heating, no toilets Ė there was nothing. It was like going up
into the Sierras to camp.
What was the first thing that Teller did when he got there?
He arranged to have a piano moved up the path so that he could play Mozart
at night. It reminded me that he was not necessarily the Doctor Strangelove
that people thought of him.
Peter Sellars: Of course, Teller has an interesting
subsequent history. I think one of the interesting things for me is always
putting onstage a very narrow window of time. As the audience, we have an
attitude about Richard Nixon, about Mao Tse-Tung, about lots of people in
our operas. I try and keep that offstage. Then the audience can really
challenge their own preconceptions in a really exciting way.
In the case of Edward Teller, the material all comes from
his writings. A lot of it is very surprising.
Pamela Rosenberg: Originally the Second Act would have been
about 1954 in the House of Un-American Activities. Thatís no longer the case
insofar as the whole Teller/Oppenheimer duo is not really as central as it
would have been in the Second Act.
Peter Sellars: But of course itís tense, and itís very
present. Those are two extraordinary people and the sparks do fly.
Question: Iím also from the Chronicle. I see how the bomb
looms there as if itís going to fall on its creators. Is that how it looks
throughout the opera?
Peter Sellars: No. Weíre just rehearsing one scene. But that
is certainly a facsimile of the bomb itself. The inner workings are not
there today, but thatís how it looked.
John Adams: The bomb gets the next to the last word.
Question: Iím a freelancer. What would you say is the
dramatic heart of the opera? Did you say that the politics of England, the
U.S. and Russia did not come into the opera?
John Adams: No, I did not say that at all.
As far as what is at the emotional or dramatic heart of the
opera, I think youíre looking at it right now [the bomb]. What could be more
dramatic or compelling of oneís imagination than this weapon?
As far as the personalities go, I think, at least in Act
One, itís this moral crisis among these young scientists. They had made this
weapon thinking they were in a race against Hitler. In that sense, I
personally feel that it was a noble effort on their part. Then they
discovered that the European war was over, and that it was down to a war of
attrition and that the Japanese people were virtually helpless. The
scientists were beginning to realize that this bomb was not only going to be
used on the Japanese, but it was going to be used on civilians.
They looked to their leader, their moral paterfamilias in
Robert Oppenheimer, for some kind of acknowledgment of their crisis, and
they didnít get the answer they expected from him. He actually, in Scene One
of this opera based on this transcript Peter has found of Oppenheimer
talking, tells these young guys, well, the best thing to do is to drop it on
civilians. He doesnít say it in so many words, but...
Peter Sellars: And again, I think the dramatic heart of the
piece is very much, in this age of "No Child Left Behind" where things are
both dumbed down and separated, treating science in the context of the
humanities, and saying that there are science questions that are larger
moral questions that are not purely technical questions.
Weíre in a period now where everyone is so hyper-specialized
in their direction Ė whether itís the arts, where youíve got to be an
insider to understand whatís going on, or science, where you have to be an
insider to understand whatís going on Ė that we must question what in a
democracy should we share, especially in terms of collective decisions that
do have collective importance. How do you balance secrecy and democracy? How
do you balance science moving forward, knowledge moving forward, and at the
same time bringing into the world things that Ė and I think weíre in the
middle of this obviously with bio-engineering and a whole series of
questions Ė have huge moral implications that are not just scientific,
This moment is history is the moment where that point was
reached at such an extreme. Now virtually every field is at this point. The
bioengineering revolution will overtake even nuclear physics in terms of its
huge consequences for the planet. And at the same time, of course, we do
treat the presence of cancer in the world, and so many other effects of this
particular night that weíre still living with and that have absolutely
shaped the 21st century.
The question of personal responsibility in the middle of
huge projects Ė the question of the government deciding if necessary to not
just firebomb Japan, which was already going on night after night, but of
dropping even a second bomb Ė all of these are huge questions for the people
who are in the middle of it. I think the drama of it is really the drama
that weíre all facing at this moment: At what point does your voice matter
in a democracy while these huge, sweeping changes that are taking over the
Question: Iíd like you say more about the detonation Ė the
staging and the music.
Peter Sellars: No, I wonít tell you one thing [laughter]
because my rule is that you donít get to the end until you get to the end.
We just have to get there first. In fact, I was going to stage it last
night, and I didnít. We set a few preliminary light cues and a few other
things, but weíll have to get there.
For me, America is so obsessed with special effects and
external evidence, rather than actually dealing with the internal realities
and consequences of that. For example, in Oedipus Rex, the guy tears his
eyes out at the moment when he finally sees. Now, the Stephen Spielberg
version of that would have a multi-million dollar exploding eyeball budget
that would be "What does an exploding eyeball look like when the fingers
In Greek theater, that was kept offstage. The question is
not what an exploding eyeball look like, but why would someone tear their
My hope is that at the end of the evening, as in Greek
theater, the power will not be the actual gouging out of the eye, such as it
is theatrically. Rather, the theatrical power will be every question that is
overwhelmed with why would someone gouge their eyes out. If weíre able to
build that properly, it will be overwhelming.
Pamela Rosenberg: Thatís why we do opera.
Question: How accessible will this be? Will kids get it?
Pamela Rosenberg: Levels of it, yes.
John Adams: You know, when I was about 8 years old, I lived
in a small town in New Hampshire. It was about the most secure cocoon one
could imagine for a little American boy growing up.
I remember falling asleep one night while hearing the sound
of a plane way, way high overhead. And I remember asking myself, is that the
Russians coming to bomb us?
Maybe at that time, I was incapable of handling all the
intellectual and moral complexities of mutually assured destruction and
international balance of powers, but I had absorbed all of the anxiety that
was coming through the media and public life in the cold war. So I think a
child will get the main essence of this.
Pamela Rosenberg: Pragmatically as a Grandmother, children
get various things on various levels. My only suggestion would be to know
your child and how well developed their ability to concentrate is. If your
child is not used to going to live things Ė this will be three hours
including the intermission Ė if they are only used to looking at things at
TV and wonít have the kind of concentration necessary, then donít bring
them. But if youíve got a kid where concentration is not an issue, I think
from 12 on up, they will get so much out of it.
Peter Sellars: At the moment weíre in a period where the
arts are so sidelined from national life and from any sense of importance,
and the idea is that the arts are like dessert, you can just cut it, drop it
from the school system, nobody needs it, I would really like to emphasize
that the arts are not dessert. Itís essential to the working of a democracy
that thereís a way of communicating about the deepest questions across many,
many levels of the society.
We have to find the language that does reach out across
society. We have to particularly address topics that have been eliminated
from most Americanís menus and reduced to a talk radio question of someoneís
opinion. We need substance. We need depth of field. We need to create
something that has to be discussed intelligently.
I encourage all of you as writers to use this piece to go to
the place where most of your editors wouldnít otherwise let you publish
something that is thoughtful, that is reflective, and that does open out
into exactly the type of reflections that most Americans are not hearing and
are not seeing.
I would like to suggest at this moment, where weíre in such
political lockstep, that we really use the arts as the place to reopen
debate and conversation, and really insist upon the presence of subject
matter, and really say that these things do not reduce to soundbites. There
is a three-hour opera by John Adams that has 450 billion notes in it that
begins to touch some of the complexity. As Americans, weíre living with
complexity, and that is the point. The point is to exercise our muscles to
be able to live with and deal with complexity and look at it eye to eye.
Opera is the most complex art form that exists. Itís visual
art and poetry and dance and music all creating something that finally gives
you this interlocking complexity of the world, both the visible and the
invisible. I would propose that at this moment in American history, Iím very
pleased to be able to offer from the stage of the San Francisco Opera
something that will have to be discussed. Hopefully that discussion will go
far and wide.
Pamela Rosenberg: It will also be an extremely visceral
evening. I just mentioned the Faust because that was the genesis of the idea
for me. We do not this An American Faust. I think John is afraid that people
will try to fit it into the pattern of the Goethe Faust and try to figure
out who the Devil is. The genesis for me was about the quest for knowledge
and where it can lead. So please forget the Faust thing.
Peter Sellars: But the title is pretty good...
Pamela Rosenberg: The Board member who told me that they
still arenít sleeping over there meant that [in their heads] theyíre still
in Los Alamos. I also want to say that the fact that Friedemann Rahlig is
not going to be singing the role of Edward Teller [replaced by Richard Paul
Fink] has no reflection on him as an artist. We still believe in him very
much. Heís a fabulous artist. Indeed, heís been offered a role by the future
regime, so to speak; we canít talk about it because we canít talk about the
pieces yet. But the decision was really a question of the tessitura having
been changed from low bass to high bass-baritone.
Peter Sellars: Thanks a lot.
Note: After the conference concluded, I overheard Peter telling
one press member that he and John really wanted to resist the temptation of
creating a good guy vs. bad guy opera. That is not what Doctor Atomic is
- Jason Victor Serinus -