Feature Article

Doctor Atomic Press Conference

September, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus


The October 1 San Francisco Opera world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams' 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 – 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 Pamela Rosenberg.

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 http://www.sfopera.com and http://www.doctor-atomic.com.



Publicity Department Chief Karen Ames: I would like to ask Maestro Runnicles to give us an update. Now that we've 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: I'll 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 life's 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 didn't think he had an opera left in him. It's a huge amount of work and he doesn't 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 American Faust.

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 didn't 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, they're all sitting across the Bay there. They're all very old now, and most of them can't 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. We're 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 carried with.

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 John's intensely written music. It has an elemental drive that's 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 it's extraordinary what can already be achieved in terms of mimicking the sound.

What was left to do – John will address this too – 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, don't 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 it's 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 entire score.

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. He's extremely modest and self-deprecating about himself – certainly not about his music – 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 I'm sure John and hopefully Peter will address. It's 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. You've been living with this for two years – actually five years since Pamela first suggested it to me. To finally see the set and Peter's vision of this, and to hear the music come together with these singers... it's 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. He's one of the most humble conductors in a profession that does not sprout humility to often. There's such a genuine affection on the part of the players for Donald. It's 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 don't know how their part fits into the part of the person sitting next to them, and they don't know how in God's 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 you've ever seen what a timpani player, a piccolo player, or a second trombone player has in front of them, it's this meaningless bit of abstract information on a page. And yet we're 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.

It's really up to the conductor to generate that level of commitment and seriousness. As I've 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. It's 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 haven't done it justice. I did think that I'd never write another Grand Opera because it's so much work. Unless the story really warrants it, you're better off doing something else.

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 other theme.

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 haven't been up to it. I hope maybe that I've at least come to the base of it. Perhaps as a group effort that involves everyone here, we'll 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, it's the dawn.

This is the 21st century. John's music flows a little faster than Wagner's 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 Adams' 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 it's not just as the clock moves, but it's what's 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 woman's 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.

We're 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 won't turn back.

This opera is the 20th century moving forward. John's music contains Stravinsky, Wagner, Varese, Henry Purcell, Palestrina... but it's 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 that's larger than any one of our individual lives. That's 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 hasn't 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, it's very important to put something in public that is American and talks about us as Americans with the depth of John's 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 cultural world.

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 you're wondering what intelligent women were thinking during these years, Muriel Rukeyser is one of the great voices.

The voices for the scientists' wives – the voices for Kitty Oppenheimer – 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 you're going to set off an atomic bomb? Trinity. Robert Oppenheimer brought that from John Donne's 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. We're 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 John's rhythms, because for me, one of the most amazing things is that John's 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 ‘40s, just coming out of the WPA period, those bold clean lines like a Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi work -- shocking, stark clear.

It's 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 that's truly what happened. So it's 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 we've got the full set to rehearse in every day with full lighting. It's astonishing what we're able to do here. We really are seeing the whole opera.

We're 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 we're able to do it with astonishing care and attention.

Pamela Rosenberg: It's 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. They're as compelling as these puppies, as you call them – 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 what's 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, "Don't 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 we're 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 world's 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 it's 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 –from Truman and the very top Heads of State – 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 that's not in our opera.

Then there is a love scene that follows the first scene of Act One. It's 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 – and I could imagine him being quite stagy as they're making love – 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 simmer...

Peter Sellars: It should be boil over.

John Adams: One of the things I'm pleased about, and that really sets Doctor Atomic apart from anything that I've ever done, is that I've 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, I've gone much further with it.

I've 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, Varese's 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 I'm surrounded by it that I'm in one of Ernest Lawrence's electronic accelerators. That sets the tone.

It's 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. That's the very opening of the opera.

Now, last week I received an anxious e-mail from a retired physics professor at Cal saying, well, that's not exactly true [laughter], but I've since said, well, this is a period piece [more laughter], so I'm going with what this book said.

We don't have the sound system we'll have on opening night, but this will give you a little idea of what you'll hear. It's 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 it?

[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: I'm 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 Teller's 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 – I could even say probably that he loved him – but he understood that Teller was a difficult person and did not work well in groups.

This comes out in the libretto. Teller's 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 – 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. That's 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 it's tense, and it's very present. Those are two extraordinary people and the sparks do fly.

Question: I'm also from the Chronicle. I see how the bomb looms there as if it's going to fall on its creators. Is that how it looks throughout the opera?

Peter Sellars: No. We're just rehearsing one scene. But that is certainly a facsimile of the bomb itself. The inner workings are not there today, but that's how it looked.

John Adams: The bomb gets the next to the last word.

Question: I'm 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 you're looking at it right now [the bomb]. What could be more dramatic or compelling of one's imagination than this weapon?

As far as the personalities go, I think, at least in Act One, it's 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 didn't 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 doesn't 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.

We're in a period now where everyone is so hyper-specialized in their direction – whether it's the arts, where you've got to be an insider to understand what's going on, or science, where you have to be an insider to understand what's going on – 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 – and I think we're in the middle of this obviously with bio-engineering and a whole series of questions – have huge moral implications that are not just scientific, technical questions.

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 we're still living with and that have absolutely shaped the 21st century.

The question of personal responsibility in the middle of huge projects – 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 – 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 we're 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 world?

Question: I'd like you say more about the detonation – the staging and the music.

Peter Sellars: No, I won't tell you one thing [laughter] because my rule is that you don't 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 didn't. We set a few preliminary light cues and a few other things, but we'll 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 gouge in?"

In Greek theater, that was kept offstage. The question is not what an exploding eyeball look like, but why would someone tear their eyes out.

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 we're able to build that properly, it will be overwhelming.

Pamela Rosenberg: That's 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 – this will be three hours including the intermission – if they are only used to looking at things at TV and won't have the kind of concentration necessary, then don't bring them. But if you've 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 we're 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. It's essential to the working of a democracy that there's 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 American's menus and reduced to a talk radio question of someone's 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 wouldn't 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 we're 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, we're 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. It's 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, I'm 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 aren't sleeping over there meant that [in their heads] they're 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. He's a fabulous artist. Indeed, he's been offered a role by the future regime, so to speak; we can't talk about it because we can't 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 about.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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