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Between poetry and technology

October 25, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A few minutes before I had to leave for the airport Saturday morning to fly to San Francisco for the last performance of John Adams' new opera, "Doctor Atomic," I clicked onto the BBC Radio 3 website. A broadcast of "Tristan and Isolde," recorded live in Paris last spring, was about to begin.

In the lead-up to the performance, Peter Sellars -- who directed this innovative production that began as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Tristan Project" -- was describing the otherworldly journey of the opera's lovers. I then turned on a program I had stayed up late the night before to download, expecting it would record the broadcast onto my computer.

At the airport, it occurred to me that, thanks to Wi-Fi, I could also listen to a bit of the broadcast on my laptop while waiting for my plane. Maybe I could even tune in on my Palm Pilot, which also has Wi-Fi, while standing in line at security. How cool is that?

And how cool is it that technology has so wired our global village that a Paris opera production for which Sellars was responsible might reach me as I boarded a flight to see another opera Sellars directed?

It was not cool at all.

Even if I had gotten a strong signal at the terminal, I wasn't willing to pay 10 bucks for three minutes' worth of "Tristan." The BBC's sound quality on the Internet is not great for music. The PDA thing is a pain.

Surely technology will make an airport "Tristan" a snap soon enough. But to what end? Listening to bleeding chunks of Wagner in a teeming terminal reduces spiritually transcendent, sexually energizing art to nothing more than an anti-irritant.

Still, the confrontation with modern technology did help prepare me for a re-encounter with "Doctor Atomic," which concerns the making of the first atom bomb. The opera focuses on the exact moment, historically and psychically, when humanity first unleashed the power to destroy itself. It ends with the successful first atom bomb test in Alamogordo, N.M.

It was then -- at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945 -- that mankind began to live under the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Most of us have never known life without that threat, which seems to increase with every passing day. That is why, perhaps, the thought of a "Tristan" security blanket was a fleeting notion of a way to endure airport security lines -- one means of remaining connected to the world in this cold, alienating environment.

"Doctor Atomic" illuminates J. Robert Oppenheimer's inner turmoil as he led the Manhattan Project, the largest technological endeavor in history, in the beautiful New Mexican desert. The moral implications were profound and far from clear-cut.

In a pre-performance talk Saturday night, Adams described a recent conversation with a neighbor who told him that he had been on a warship on its way to invade Japan when the bombs went off at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that he was sure they had saved his life.

The composer said that after a five-year immersion in this material, he still didn't know where he stood on the issue. Likewise, "Doctor Atomic" is an opera of questions, not answers. In the most powerful way possible, it forces us to actively confront the specter of potentially all-consuming technology.

At the first, jittery performance of this complex and demanding work, those implications were not as readily apparent as they were 10 performances later. The cast was not ideal, but by Saturday all the singers had grown considerably into their parts. Gerald Finley's Oppenheimer took on a fuller poetic dimension, if one still missing what Sellars has aptly called his hummingbird-like character. The orchestra was more secure. The staging was better centered. Technology, in the form of amplification, proved more reliable.

What became much clearer in the last performance was just how much the world changed from a pre-technological to a technological one with the detonation of the atomic bomb. For Oppenheimer, poetry and physics were two sides of civilization's coin, and he needed both to build the bomb.

He envisioned a force with the ability to save and destroy the world -- a power that existed previously only in mythology. But he had to rely on what to us seems like Stone Age technology. In those pre-computer days, he marshaled thousands of mathematical foot soldiers to do the calculations.

Sellars' libretto swings inventively from documentary material (official papers and memoirs) to poetry. The cosmic conflict, we see, is really between math and mythology.

Like Wagner, and like Oppenheimer, Adams has one foot in the future and one in the past. His arias function the way arias always have in the best opera, as insights into the deepest reaches of his characters' minds.

But he pushes the medium forward at the same time. "Doctor Atomic" is good history. But it is also good psychology. Some have complained that the final countdown to the blast is too slow -- 20 minutes of historical time takes nearly 45 to re-create onstage. But in fact the music takes us into a dream state. Time becomes dream time. The only way to confront this most startling and troubling moment of technology in history is for the characters to find something in themselves. This is the epic struggle to remain human.

Given the abilities of technology, "Doctor Atomic's" portrayal of that struggle ought to be readily available. San Francisco Opera, however, will not broadcast this much talked-about premiere. Union regulations won't permit the company to do so. Musicians have learned nothing. For them, technology is not for art but for profit.

By the way, the program that was supposed to record "Tristan" didn't work.

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