John Adams talks about Doctor Atomic
(this article is part of an extended interview with Thomas May, published in “The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer” published by Amadeus Press, 2006)
Describe the timeframe for Doctor Atomic as a project.
The idea for an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb was suggested to me by Pamela Rosenberg, the General Director of the San Francisco Opera. I think we first talked about it in the late winter or early spring of 2002. I didn't start work on the opera until January of 2004. I finished the full score in June of 2005, so that means I wrote the entire opera, in less than 18 months. I find that rather shocking...an opera of that size composed in less than two years. It's longer and more complex than any of my previous stage works. There are 550 pages of full score. Both Nixon and Klinghoffer were each 24 months from start to finish.
How about El Niño?
I wrote El Niño in a year. It was extremely intense to do it in such a short time, though. I wrote El Niño the same way I wrote the two previous operas, by which I mean that I composed the whole work first by just doing the vocal parts with a very rudimentary piano score. And then I went back and orchestrated it. With Doctor Atomic I went straight to fully orchestrated score. The piano version, necessary for stage rehearsals, was done by a gifted composer and arranger in New York, Scott Eyerly. I did not envy him, having to make some kind of sense of my very detailed orchestrations. In the 1980's and 1990's several other large works— Harmonium , Nixon in China , The Death of Klinghoffer and the Violin Concerto—were arranged for piano by John McGinn, an amazingly talented arranger (and composer) who started doing piano reductions of my scores when he was a freshman in college. These are no small feats. When I look at Wagner scores, I wonder who did the grunt work of reducing those richly orchestrated scores down to two-hand piano music. We know that part of Alban Berg's slavish relationship to his teacher, Schoenberg, included having to make a piano reduction of Schoenbert's Gurrelieder , one of the most gigantic musical compositions ever written.
How are you approaching the libretto for Doctor Atomic ? You had such an incredible chemistry going with Alice Goodman in the earlier operas.
Alice and my chemistry was, well... only a chemist could describe that! We had major disputes, even some hard feelings with the two operas [ Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer ]. I think some of it had to do with the fact that she was a literary person working in what's fundamentally a musical world, opera, always feeling that her value was never quite appreciated. Parts of the Nixon libretto were never set to music, something that puzzled and probably annoyed her. I hope she'll publish the whole original version some day. I don't think she has any idea how much her work is beloved by people who know the opera. Enough time has passed for people to realize what a great libretto Nixon in China is. Klinghoffer is equally wonderful, but it's a more difficult, less immediately accessible text, and like much great poetry, it requires contemplation and effort to appreciate. Making these operas was a collaboration that couldn't have happened without Peter Sellars. In addition to suggesting the stories, Peter, with his perennial optimism and good humor, often prevented us from self-destructing (laughing) .
In Klinghoffer of course, part of the excellence of that libretto comes from how she transmogrified factual text material. How does that compare with what Peter Sellars has done in compiling sources for Doctor Atomic?
What Alice did both with Nixon in China and with The Death of Klinghoffer –what all three of us did, in fact--was to read extensively, absorbing everything, particularly personal, first-hand accounts. In the case of Nixon in China the reading covered everything from articles about Pat Nixon in Ladies' Home Journal and similar middle brow magazines to biographies of Madame Mao and Chairman Mao's poetry. I remember reading several books on the Cultural Revolution, one by Harrison Salisbury about the Long March and rereading Fan Shen , a book about communal life in revolutionary China that I'd first encountered at Harvard in a course taught by Ezra Vogel, the great China scholar. And of course Alice dutifully plowed through Six Crises by Nixon and The White House Years by Kissinger. (That was a sacrifice I was unwilling to make!) All this reading was in the spirit of things, because Mao himself was a habitual reader. The famous meeting between the two world leaders took place in a library, the Chairman's personal library. I love Alice's putting the comment in Mao's mouth, speaking to Nixon: “ Six Crises isn't a bad book.” And this is followed by Chou en Lai lamenting “He reads too much.” This is the kind of wit and sly reference to history that you just don't get in your standard opera libretto.
In the case of Klinghoffer Alice did something even more extraordinary: she read a translation of the memoirs of the Captain of the Achille Lauro, the Italian cruise liner that was hijacked. These memoirs were never published in English, so we had to get someone to translate them for us. I've since lost my copy of it--that's a shame, because it's really a precious document. I remember reading his memoirs after I'd composed the opera and being amazed at how Alice had poeticized the inner musings of this ship captain, making him into a Conradian storyteller.
In 2002, nearly twenty years after the actual hijkacking, there was a production of The Death of Klinghoffer in Torino, Italy, and the captain, Giovanni da Rosa I think his name is, came to one of the performances. I wasn't there, but an Italian friend of mine who was in the audience told me that the cast invited him onto the stage after the performance. He spoke a bit to the audience, saying that the opera literally made him shiver because it brought back the exact emotions he had felt during the hijacking. I thought that was really a compliment to the opera: at least for him, the text and music had achieved a level of verisimilitude that equalled his deepest memories of the event.
In the case of Dr. Atomic , it's a similar principle of “found poetry” at work?
The texts for El Niño and Doctor Atomic were both created by arranging pre-existing texts. In the case of El Niño Peter and I decided a group of poems, Biblical excerpts and other texts, all having to do with the Nativity but spanning a huge historical period, from the Old Testament through the Apocrypha, English “miracle plays,” and Martin Luther up to twentieth century writers like Rosario Castellanos, the great Mexican poet and novelist. Then Peter made a narrative sequence from them that I set it to music. All the Hispanic voices in the piece were Peter's discoveries, largely the result of his knowing several Mexican poets living in Los Angeles. To me, they were all completely new names.
Doctor Atomic was more extensive and much more of a challenge because we were dealing with information from all sorts of sources: first hand accounts, memoirs, journalistic narratives, declassified government documents and, in one case, a detailed description of the construction of the plutonium sphere I'd found on an internet site, and which I set for women's chorus. And then of course there was the poetry, verses that Oppenheimer, and immensely literate individual, loved: Baudelaire, Donne, the Bhagavad Gita . Peter introduced me to the work of Muriel Rukyeser, a socially committed poet who lived at the same time as Oppenheimer and whose work expresses that special tone of wartime consciousness so powerfully.
It's wonderful what Peter does: he reads voluminously. When I visited him in his tiny bungalow in Venice, California, I noticed he had an entire wall devoted to books on the Los Alamos story and about Oppenheimer. I thought I'd assembled a pretty deep collection on the subject, but Peter's was three times as large. I took a peek at random into his collection, and every book was marked profusely with Peter's pencil notations. He'd read everything! That's the way he is with all the works that he takes on, whether it's Tristan und Isolde or Artaud, or Idomeneo or Euripedes. He's the deepest, most thoughtful and most reactive reader I've ever met.
El Niño is more like a fairytale, an oratorio, and because of that one doesn't really require active theatrical dialogue. I was worried about how this method of libretto creation would work for Doctor Atomic . In an opera you need that personal interaction, clashes of will, strong emotions, anger, discord, love, hate—the whole gamut of human intercourse. The last thing we would want would be something historically accurate but emotionally frozen, like a Victorian oratorio or some such thing. But in fact he did a brilliant job of solving that challege. I think that the dialogue in Doctor Atomic, particularly in the first act, virtually crackles with the high energy of human interaction. It's every bit as involving and as realistic as anything I've seen in any other opera libretto.
You talked earlier about your reading habits in terms of a general aesthetic. What specific things have fed into this project? For example, there's that famous book by Richard Rhodes…
That was the first book I read. The Making of the Atomic Bomb , a very influential book, and far more than a mere description of the bomb. It is, in fact, a history of physics in the first half of the twentieth century.
I read the Rhodes book and its sequel, Dark Star, which is less about science and more about the Cold War, thermonuclear weapons and Soviet-American espionage. I've read a collection of Oppenheimer's letters. When some people see this opera and hear Oppenheimer singing Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita and a John Donne sonnet, they're likely to think that its creators are being much too arty. But in fact, if you read about Oppenheimer and read his own letters, you see that he was quite possibly the most cultured scientist who ever lived--more so than Newton or Einstein or Neils Bohr. He did indeed quote the Sanskrit poetry (which he read in the original!), and he and his wife Kitty had little coded signals to each other that were based on Baudelaire lines or some such text. When he was a 17-year-old undergraduate at Harvard, he and his roommates would have sonnet-writing contests. So it's appropriate, and no stretch of the imagination, that in this opera Oppenheimer would express his deepest thoughts in great poetry.
There are passages from the letters too?
No, I didn't use any Oppenheimer's the letters, but at the end of the first act I set John Donne's sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” as a soliloquy for Oppenheimer. He is alone—a rare moment of solitude for him—and feels a very deep dissonance within himself over the fact that here he is bringing forth this terrible weapon, something that is going to introduce an unknowable amount of pain and destruction into the world. The Donne sonnet , which Oppenheimer later said prompted him to name the test site “Trinity, is a poem of almost unbearable self-awareness, an agonistic struggle between good and evil, darkness and light.
Holy Sonnet No. 14
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed 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.]
The poet speaks as one whose soul “like an usurped town”, has been taken captive by dark forces—the dark “shadow” of his own self. The real God must come forth and batter him and break him and bend him and destroy him, and make him whole and new again. It's a very profound moment in the opera. Later, after I'd set this sonnet to music, I read in a new biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus , how Oppenheimer went into a deep depression after the the initial euphoria of the bomb's success wore off.
But you don't cover that in Dr. Atomic-- it ends with the Trinity?
Yes, that's right. It ends with the Trinity test. We'd originally planned an epilogue, a setting of a declassified transcript of a phone conversation between General Groves and an Army doctor about two weeks after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions. It's clear from this phone conversation that General Groves considered all the stories about horrible death from radiation as nothing more than Japanese propaganda. He, like many others in the government, refused to believe that radiation could cause such horrible forms of painful suffering and death. He was, as we'd say today “in major denial.” People were only just beginning to realize the horrific nature of a nuclear attack.
What was the first musical impulse you had for the opera?
I thought about the art, music and films that emerged out of the immediate postwar period--in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s--and how it expressed a chilling awareness of man's ability to destroy himself. Science fiction movies started appearing, and a typical plot would involve a nuclear explosion in the desert--in Nevada for perhaps. This would result in some disturbing phenomenon, something frightening and threatening. Nature would go awry or a monster would appear. And of course, the truth is, some of the physicists working on the bomb in Los Alamos were not 100% certain that their invention wouldn't ignite the entire earth's atmosphere.
So I had several ideas. One was to evoke science fiction movie music, which was one of the reasons why I decided to call it Doctor Atomic --I wanted to give that sense of science fiction, plus of course the backdoor reference to Doctor Faustus , a book which comes from the same postwar era. But actually the first really strong musical idea came to me when I thought about Varèse— a work like Déserts , which suggests to me a post-nuclear holocaust landscape. That was my first inspiration, and I went with those ideas--Varèse and science fiction music. You can hear it in the very opening bars of music. This comes after one of several musique concrète preludes that are interwoven into the operatic structure.
You're well- known for your ability to bend natural rhythm so beautifully. And you've become so much more experienced now in word setting, through your previous operas and with El Niño , setting Spanish texts for that. Has there been any significant change for Doctor Atomic in terms of how you deal with prosody, etc?
I don't think so. I'm a little more aware of trying to make the lines more fluid and more enjoyable to sing. It's hard to set English—especially just plain flat-out prose like “He said that I should go over and tell that to Oppenheimer” or something like that. I notice when I'm composing that I can get distracted and lose track of the necessity to make good vocal lines. Another temptation I have, shared by many other composers, alas, is to write too high for the men. I have to go back and be very careful about the vocal lines so that they're not only beautiful but also that they don't always lie in a zone that's exhausting for both singer and listener.
I think I really made a major breakthrough in my vocal writing in El Niño. It has vocal lines that are much more beautiful than those in Klinghoffer and Nixon . I've been to operas when, upon leaving the theater, I have no memory whatsoever of the singing--other than that it was just people barking at each other for three hours. I remember seeing a recent production in San Francisco of [Busoni's] Dr. Faustus : it just seemed to be people shouting at each other the whole opera. Singing is something that should be beautiful, I think--especially if you have great singers like the ones I write for—Sanford Sylvan, James Maddelena, Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Gerald Finley and others of that level. That's why I try to think of Mozart as often as possible.
You've spoken earlier about landscape in your music. How much landscape is present here?
I've used some sound-effects that will come up on loudspeakers--weather sounds mostly, rain, thunder, wind. It's very eerie when you hear it-- both eerie and mysteriously beautiful, just the sound of rain, for example. On the night before the scheduled test, on the 15 th -16 th of July, 1945 when they were getting ready to detonate the first plutonium bomb, a tremendous electrical storm came out of nowhere. It was completely unseasonal and fearsomely dangerous, as the bomb had already been hoisted up on scaffolding, ready to detonate. You'd be hard put to deny that there's something mythic and portentous about a storm of this magnitude suddenly appearing right as the world's first atomic bomb was about to explode.
One of the things I came across in the course of reading about nuclear energy was a homely little analogy, perhaps a bit oversimplified, but nevertheless very vivid: it expresses how much energy is involved in keeping a atom stable. If you imagine that there is roughly enough energy binding the atoms in a glass of water to power the Queen Mary across the Atlantic and back you can get an idea of the forces involved. That is an astonishing thing. It expresses how vast is the amount of energy in a very small amount of mass. And if all of that mass can be liberated into pure energy, think of how much power is unleashed. You've seen these pictures of a thermonuclear explosion, or even just the bomb that was detonated at Trinity? That plutonium explosion had the force of a hurricane and for a moment approximated the heat of the sun. And it was nothing more than a very small mass that caused it, a plutonium sphere the size of a grapefruit. Even that sphere itself was not entirely solid—it was packed with tamper. So the actual material that fissioned was very small. The understanding of that interchangeable relationship between energy and matter, E=mc2, is what revolutionized twentieth century thinking and what made the bomb possible.
Are there any trickster elements in this opera? Any need for comic relief?
These scientists and their wives all found ways to unwind, but life was undeniably difficult. The men all worked six days a week, and the wives who were not themselves scientists were either given very menial jobs or were just left to cope with the primitive living conditions. Remember that Los Alamos was almost entirely created by the Army slapping together rickety housing with poor plumbing and only a single, wood-burning stove. They were very young people, remember, mostly in their twenties and thirties. I read accounts of life on the mesa. Everyone was cooped up and under guard by Army MP's. Most unwound with big parties on the weekend,. Heavy drinking, practical joking, and doubtless for those fortunate enough, plenty of sex. But this is basically a male story: Oppie and General Groves were the “elders”, and Oppie himself was only in his early forties. Teller and most of the other people were in their thirties and even twenties. So, by and large, you have to imagine the sound of men, male energy, male thinking, male voices, the violence that this male energy is going to produce. The two women in the cast-- Kitty Oppenheimer and her Navajo maid, Pasqualita—almost by default become prophetic voices, in contrast to the men and their science. Do you know the term das Ewig-Weibliche ?
Yes—the end of Faust.
That's right. The “eternal feminine”. sort of a German equivalent to “Gaia knowledge.” The phrase das Ewig-Weibliche appears at the very end of Goethe's Faust Part II. In Doctor Atomic Kitty Oppenheimer assumes the role of eternal feminine, a Cassandra, channeling human history in her long soliloquies. She carries a deep moral awareness of the consequences of what is being done there on the mesa, an awareness that apparently only came to the men much later.
Of course women were not allowed on the actual test site at Alamagordo; they were not even supposed to know what their husbands were doing. There's something very symbolic about that as well: as much as to say “You can't know. I just want you here in my bed when I get home.”
Kitty has her own Brangene, a female soulmate, in the Navajo maid, Pasqualita. A lot of what Pasqualita sings verges on the incomprehensible-- poetry by Muriel Rukeyser that has vague references to some tribal past, some prehistoric consciousness, with a hint of land being corrupted and a people being destroyed. The poetry is ambiguous here, and that's a strange and mysterious quality. There's a line of Kitty that says,
“ To the farthest west, the sea and the striped country
and deep in the camps among the wounded cities”
Of course, you know it's 1945, and “camps” makes one think of concentration camps. But then just before we have the image “striped country.” Anyone can have his own reaction to the mysterious “striped country”, but for me it evokes the Southwest, the canyons and their rock formations. And “striped” also made Peter think of the striped uniforms that concentration camp prisoners were made to wear. Poetry like that is very nonlinear, purely imagistic, skirting the irrational, but it's immensely evocative.
The role of mythology in your stage work is intriguing: the way the specific is related to the universal. I've always thought that the rubric “CNN opera” was such a misnomer because it's such an obvious thing to say, but that's not what it's about—it ignores how the specific becomes the mythic. I know you've pointed out that the Faust legend doesn't have so much resonance for Americans. But I was thinking in pop culture perhaps it does: We do have the whole Robert Johnson story of a pact with the devil. In August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, one of his huge anecdotes is about a guy who sells his soul to the devil.
It's going to take another few decades for the whole “CNN-opera” reference to be laid finally to rest. It's a pain in the butt, but it cuteness will eventually have no meaning. Nor do I particularly like it when people use the term “political”, as in “Mr. Adams is fond of political themes for his stage works.” All life is political. Does one say the same thing about Mozart or Verdi, who wrote operas about the struggle of one person's will against another's?
I didn't want Doctor Atomic to be launched as an “American Faust,” which was Pamela Rosenberg's original idea. I think she understands now why I resisted having the opera come into the world with that baggage. First of all, I don't see a close analogy here. These physicists working overtime to build the bomb thought they were in a race to protect us against the Nazis. They had reliable information to think that the Germans were working on their own nuclear bomb. Imagine if Hitler actually had such a weapon to hurl at the English or even at us. I don't see anything Faustian about that endeavor at all: I think it was an heroic race to save civilization.
And then suddenly the war is over in Europe. The Japanese are seriously sending out peace feelers through diplomatic channels. There was an unmistakable change of mood among the Japanese, and the US government knew this. The only sticking point was FDR's buzz word “unconditional surrender”, which Truman inherited. It wasn't clear what we meant by that. The only requirement the Japanese had was that the Emporer would not be humiliated and that he would continue to reign, no matter how symbolically,e after the surrender. But the terrible irony was that the Japanese diplomats had chosen the Russians, the worst of all possible diplomatic channels, to launch a peace initiative. Stalin already had plans to declare war on Japan, and had even announced to the allies that he would do so on August 15, 1945. That would give him a right to join in the spoils, possibly even seizing Manchuria. The Americans knew this, and they were very anxious to bring the war to an immediate end as well as make a big noise to blow back the Russians. I think our using the bomb was a foregone conclusion. There was a terrible kind of inevitability about it, a juggernaut, part strategic, part political and part determination to put to use this weapon just to show to the world who was boss.
The scientists at Los Alamos suddenly realized that the government's position was “Okay we've let you make your invention and explode it, now thank you very much, we'll take it now.” It was just dawing on these young physicists that their invention was going to be used on civilians. It was James Conant, the chemist and president of Harvard, who proposed dropping the bomb on a civilian population in order to make the greatest psychological impact. We have the minutes of the meeting in Washington where the targets were selected by a blue-ribbon panel of experts. Oppenheimer attended that meeting too. It was not just the US military who were responsible for the decision of how and when to drop these two bombs, but intellectuals like Conant and Oppenheimer as well.
So maybe it doesn't work then, if we think of the individual scientist genius as the Faust, but it might be a military industrial complex kind of thing that becomes more Faustian….
It's really hard to say, because I think that when a full-out, no-holds-barred war is underway--as World War II was-- the goal lines are changed, and people's attitudes are very different. I read a book several years before I even thought about doing this opera-- With the Old Breed , by Eugene Sledge. He was a young guy from backcountry of Alabama who enlisted in the Marines and went to fight as a grunt, an infantry Marine, in three of the worst battles of the Pacific. After the war he wrote a book about his experience. His book is, in my mind, one of the great works of literature about war and should be placed up there with Tolstoy and All Quiet on the Western Front . Eugene Sledge gives us an absolutely unflinching description of what mortal combat is like, how extreme the act of killing is, and how utterly dehumanizing battle is. Not even the most graphic moments in films like The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan can begin to approximate what Sledge's book reveals.
With the Old Breed affected me immeasurably, because I realized that the human species undergoes a profound change in combat, almost a systemic chemical change. And this may be why when soldiers return home they rarely are able to regain their former equilibrium. When a war is no longer a glitzy, strategic run of victories, like the beginning of the Civil War for the Confederacy or the beginning of the present Iraq war for the US, and instead it becomes a stalemate of attrition, soldiers think and behave differently. By 1945 the war had devolved into a matter of killing—kill or be killed. There was little room for niceties. And the notion that this bomb may be used to kill civilians as well as military targets tended not to come up in conversations. As we saw from the European bombings by both sides, civilians by now had become military targets. There was no distinction.
What the Americans wanted to do with Japan was make the quickest and most profound impact on the population, do it as fast as possible, and get it over with. What they were apparently unwilling to do was consider the possibility of a negotiated settlement, which I think is tragic. Politicians felt anything less than total victory would not play well back home. After three years of reading about this, I am convinced that the bomb didn't have to be used. As Oppenheimer said in later years, nuclear weapons will only be used by aggressors against populations that are already terminally weakened. And that was certainly the case with Japan.
Then you can also say – and this is an unknowable thing, but also human nature-- that if the bomb had not been used by us then and there, it inevitably would have been used by someone, if not by us, then by the Russians later on. It's just it's like one of those terrible Greek myths of self-discovery: the weapon is there, we built it, and somebody is going to use it, just to see what it's like.
Whereas in the earlier works, there is a tendency perhaps to move from the very specific out into a kind of mythological universal, with El Niño it's the reverse, in a way. You're taking the myth, a folktale, and you use certain specificities like the Massacre of the Innocents vis-a-vis the 1968 student massacre, and so you get this wonderful interplay between the specific and the mythic. Where does Doctor Atomic stand in that spectrum for you?
Doctor Atomic is more like The Death of Klinghoffer in that it's about a real historic event that immediately took on mythic meaning. El Niño is, of course, one of the most familiar of all myths in Western culture. It was particularly pleasurable to assemble those texts to give a new shading to a well-known narrative and not have to worry about making sure the audience knew the plot line.
The Klinghoffer story had the benefit of being what we might call “contemporary mythology”, an event that did indeed occur during our lifetime, but which immediately spun out of control, shedding its specifics to become a symbol for something larger and more abstract. As I learned all too well, the story continues to arouse extremely violent emotions and elicits heated and conflicting opinions. I've had to absorb reactions from listeners who admire almost all of my work, but when it comes to Klinghoffer they can't find enough words to express their revulsion.
One could think of a spectrum in your music from the reexamination of 19 th -century romanticism in Harmonielehre or Naïve and Sentimental Music to the rigorous language of the Violin Concerto. How would you sort of classify the idiom in Doctor Atomic ?
I'm still so close to it, still involved in its creation and prefer not to characterize it in any way. It's coming out very fluidly, and largely without my analyzing it. I think I'd rather not do so: it would be like when you go to a great restaurant and then make the mistake of walking through the kitchen to get to the restroom--and you come back having lost your appetite. I think I'd rather not look in the kitchen here, but for the moment just enjoy what's on my plate.
You mentioned science fiction movie music as one element that became a springboard. Is there anything in a more structural or even generic sense that did that? The way the Passions are a backdrop to Klinghoffer ?
No I don't think so. I did set the John Donne sonnet in a way that has an archaic feel to it. It's in D minor and has a harmonic profile suggesting a slow, solemn classical chaconne. But that's the only moment in the whole opera where there's an “artifact”, and I think it's entirely appropriate given the audacity of bringing poetry of that level onto the test site of an atomic bomb, as Oppenheimer did. I think the tone of my setting amplifies Oppenheimer's enormous historical awareness.
How do you compose with this kind of pressure--the time pressure and publicity? Even before its premiere in Houston in 1987, Nixon in China had become a major media event. What is it like now, trying to write a work like this with so much public attention?
I actually don't feel that there's as much public attention building up for Doctor Atomic as there was with Nixon . Maybe I'm more insulated from it. Or maybe the attention now, at least among the critics, is more like “Well, can they pull it off one more time?”
Remember that in 1987 an opera drawn from recent historical events was a brash and novel idea. People couldn't imagine what an opera named Nixon in China would be like! There was huge curiosity. Nixon was still alive. Eveyone wanted to know “did Nixon see it?” [He didn't attend a performance, but Leonard Garment, his lawyer during the Watergate crisis, told us that Nixon was obsessively interested in everything writtten about him, so there's every reason to presume he saw the Great Performances telecast from Houston.] Also, in 1987 minimalism as a musical style was still quite controversial. In the intervening 18 years there's been a boomlet in newly commissioned operas resulting in lot of competition for attention among audiences and the press. Opera companies small and large are commissioning and performing new works regularly now. That's a good thing, although I think there's too much attention paid to premieres and not enough to establishing a repertory.
Does that make you more optimistic than you were a few years ago about where classical music is in our culture?
Well, I fear becoming a kind of Hamlet about the fate of contemporary classical music. The warning signs of its demise as a living artform are all over the place. Yet I persist in thinking that there are some aspects of the human record on this planet that can't be satisfied by popular music alone, no matter how sophisticated it may be. I was powerfully affected, for example, by the fact that, in the weeks right after September 11, many people needed classical music for access a part of themselves that other forms of music were powerless to satisfy.
As far as the many new operas being composed now, I haven't heard a lot of them. They might be good, but my sense is that we're not experiencing some incredible moment in musical history, one that's giving birth to a host of great new, meaningful operas. I'm very grateful that there is interest and that people want to commission artists. That's an undeniably healthy environment, even if it turns out that only a couple of lasting works resulted. Certainly the scene for commissioning new work is infinitely better than it was 30 years ago, when almost no major composer in this country had an opera commission. But the test is whether people want to have an opera come back after a hiatus of a couple of years-- whether an opera, once it's written, has “legs.”
What about this idea of controversy that seems to have unintentionally attended so many of your works? How does that affect your sense of the social responsibility of an artist?
Well some people say I design these controversies! Social responsibility-- that's an interesting area on which Peter and I don't always agree. He believes deeply in the social responsibility of art and artists, and I've noticed often that the music that he talks about most enthusiastically is music which he can construe as having a social message. I am uncertain about what kind of a dynamic exists between encountering a work of art and then transferring that experience into social action. For sure, an artwork's aesthetic value has nothing to do with its social import. Some of the most earnest works of art, works of undeniable sincerity, are perfectly awful as art. What appeals to me in subjects like the Nixon-Mao meeting, or the Achille Lauro incident, or the atomic bomb, are their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time. I'm not interested in lecturing my audience, teaching a social parable in the manner of a Brecht Lehrstück .
What has been really wonderful about knowing Peter for over 20 years is being reaffirmed in the notion that art is a serious matter--that even comedy should be done always on the highest level. What both of us deplore is art as a commodity. That's why I'm disgusted and appalled by looking at the marketing that goes on, for example, in the classical music industry. The worst aspects of mass marketing has been appropriated to “sell” classical music an otherwise sophisticated music public as we witness regularly when your major institutions send out their glossy brochures full of maxed-out adjectives and ridiculous claims.
The “democratizing” of art, particularly in the hands of Americans, has resulted in a deadening repetition of the same familar “products”: endless Beethoven festivals, Mahler cycles, travelling art shows, tacky “theme” programs, and the personality cult of big name artists and performers. This creates a hectic, market-driven environment in the “non-profit” world where the big institutions behave like vacuum cleaners sucking up all the available funding, leaving only crumbs for small community or radical art. And those out of the way “fringe” organizations, of course, are where the seeds for real creativity take place.
So if music as an art may not function so well as a measure of social change or consciousness, how about on the individual level, changing somebody's life? Is a work of music actually able to transform somebody's life?
Yes, but I think it's a cumulative thing. Art is so vast a human activity that it's really foolish to try to sum up its meaning. Nevertheless I think it's probably right to say that art sensitizes us in the deepest of ways. I like to listen to baseball games on the radio. It's fun and puts me in an agreeable mood. But my deeper self tends to go to sleep, as if I'd hit the “Pause” button on my psyche. That's fine for a time, but it's no comparison to what goes on in my inner self when I listen to a Bartok quartet or the Well-tempered Clavier , or when I watch a Bergman film.
Certainly a person can be very sensitive to other human beings' feelings and not be an artistic person. And, conversely, you can have highly sensitized aesthetes who are nevertheless rude, self-absorbed and unfeeling people. But art, even in its baser forms, speaks to the better part of ourselves. That's why everyone has a need for it, even if they think they don't.
I think that a lifetime of being exposed to art, and particularly making art, makes for a fuller person. Certainly if you have children and you give them training in the arts – theater and painting, poetry and music – they grow up to be more interesting and more fulfilled and especially more sensitive individuals.
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