Thursday, October 30, 2008

I Speak According to the Book, CONTINUED: Libretto Problems, Part III

(See our last episode of Libretto Problems, here.) Hooray, so I spent the night in the city after the excellent NOW/Dargel show at Le Poisson Rouge (more on this soon), and in a few hours I'm going to see the new production of Doctor Atomic at the Met—to my many fans in attendance I'll be the guy wearing a brown cap with no friends, who vaguely resembles the picture to the right only in need of a shave. Okay where were we? Right right right! Mark Adamo. We might have guessed that Adamo knew an awful lot about libretti when we read this insightful interview from NewMusicBox, regarding his Lysistrata. For instance, Adamo talks about how in prewriting his operas, he draws up (1) a synopsis of nothing but sounds, just a description of what you'd hear if you were listening to the opera being broadcast on the radio, in Hungarian or something. Then he draws up (2) a synopsis of nothing but physical action and stage business—the opera as silent movie, nothing but dumbshow. Brilliant! He goes straight to the things that make opera unique. As opposed to Tommasini's eunuch-in-a-whorehouse type advice, this is the sort of trick an opera librettist or composer could actually learn something from. Opera is about the sounds of women's voices mingling offstage, and wordless cries from anguished baritones, but also about people clutching letters to their breasts and hesitating on staircases. On the one hand, music can be exploited as a tool for storytelling—but on the other hand, the music also abstracts the drama to the point where one cannot ask the dialogue to do as much work as it might in a piece of spoken theatre. A certain amount of physical melodrama, a few bold dramatic gestures, are key to the success of a big chunk of the operatic rep. This strategy is a bit old-school, however. What works within a Verdian aesthetic might not work for John Adams. True, if we were to imagine a silent movie production of Doctor Atomic, we would probably imagine a bunch of dudes in suits talking to each other for a couple hours. But I'm going to cut a few yards of slack for this piece, just because the conventional music-drama is so obviously not the model Sellars and Adams are after, or have ever been after. A third of Nixon in China is dudes in suits talking to each other; the libretto of The Death of Klinghoffer, about a hijacking and murder, is structured like an oratorio, not like a conventional opera—the actual death of Leon Klinghoffer takes place offstage, for instance, instead of being dramatized. What sort of opera composer would leave out the death scene by accident? Clearly something else is going on there. Happily, Adamo's critical approach, unlike that of certain music writers I could name, while registering how the dramatic goals of the piece depart from his own tastes, is also capable of addressing the piece on its own terms. He identifies what is missing here that was present in Adams & Sellars' earlier history-operas: Alice Goodman, their visionary librettist. Yes, this libretto is a collage, and draws on a certain poetic energy that only collage can provide. And so I think Adamo is wrong to single out Oppenheimer's John Donne aria for criticism—not only did the Trinity project borrow is title from the poem, but each line, in the context of the opera, takes on multiple meanings relevant to the situation. When Oppenheimer confesses that he is "betroth'd unto Your enemy," we wonder if he has, like the Doctor Faust alluded to in the title of of the opera, sold his soul for the enormous power he is about to wield; but when he sings, "ravish me," is he begging to be mastered instead by Good, or is he simply willing himself to surrender his own moral judgment to a higher political authority? Is he praying to God, or to the Bomb? I'd go so far as to defend what somebody (who? remind me!) has called the "carbs aria" of General Groves, a musical recitation of his calorie intake. This is an opera about hubris, after all; Groves is trying to win the war in the Pacific, he's trying to split the atom, we even see him try to control the weather—but he can't even master his own body. It's a good and revealing joke. (And while I'm being critical of Adamo's critique, I can't let him get away with this silliness: "Not since Szymanowski have we heard such opulent ninths and elevenths; not since Saarijaho, such shimmering harps and gongs." "Not since" Saariaho?? Saariaho is now. She is not dead yet. You cannot say "not since Saariaho," as that would mean, like, "not since last summer," which is to say, it would not mean anything. Nit picked, carry on.) The shift between these two modes, between what is known about a given political situation (what was said in the presence of reporters, what happened in front of the TV cameras) and what will be forever unknowable (what they were thinking it happened) gets at the essence of the Sellars/Adams opera project in general. Nixon especially focused on the divide between public and private life, between the yin and yang of historical/heroic/male vs. personal/domestic/female. In Act One, we get to see Nixon shake hands with Chou En-Lai; we see him and Kissinger sit down with Chou and Mao, and the libretto sticks largely to realistic, political/philosophical dialogues. In Act Two, we meet the missus; Pat Nixon takes a tour of Beijing, Madame Mao puts on her terrifying ballet, The Detachment of Red Women, and the libretto veers off into fantasy. Act Three finds the whole gang in a liminal, half-dreamed space of strange rhapsodies. And that's the thing—bringing a bona fide librettist on board allows you then to negotiate between those two spheres. Like, Pat Nixon did not really say, "Let Gypsy Rose kick off her high-heeled party shoes!" while taking her big stroll—that's a lyrical flight of Alice Goodman's fancy—but she actually did say, "That's prophetic!" to her Chinese handlers (and the assembled press corps), and Goodman then transmuted those two words into the aria, "This is prophetic." (See how a poet can massage a clunky turn of phrase into something musical—"that's" to "this is"?) In Klinghoffer too, actual quotations and historical facts are woven into arias of rhymed couplets; real and fictional characters share the stage. But when Doctor Atomic shifts registers between documentary and lyrical, the thread is lost. We back off of the action just when we should be zooming in. Whole characters turn into a blur. Says Adamo:

Pasqualita’s rainsong is authentic Tewa lullaby, Rukeyser may have been acquainted with the Oppenheimers, and Groves’s diet worries are amply documented. But a libretto is not a program note. Pasqualita’s lullaby boasts impeccable historical pedigree. But what does it tell us dramatically? If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?
Bingo. I'll insist that there is nothing wrong with going all high-toned and dreamy once in a while, but the Native American characters never get a chance be human. They never get to count their calories. They just have to stand around and symbolize unspoiled Mother Nature or something. I mean c'mon, Pasqualita? More like Pasquahontas! LOL! Hum. Some of Adamo's suggestions are not great. E.g., I shudder at the thought of a part for Harry Truman; one of the things that makes Dr Awork is its unity of place. And you know what? I love Doctor Atomic; I think it is a great piece, and I can't wait to see it again. While Adamo makes sure to distance himself from outright attacks on the opera, it's clear he doesn't enjoy it quite as much as I have. But this is twice now that I've read his comments on the art of libretto-writin' and immediately wanted to write somebody a big fat libretto (dude, composerfriends, call me). Who else is thinking this hard about dramatic problems in opera? We need more of this!


Anonymous said...

I just started your blog and really enjoyed it. You may have addressed the Dr. Atomic's "Carbs" aria elsewhere, but I wanted to add my comment to your point about controlling the war/his own body. For me (and I've only seen Dr. Atomic twice and haven't read the libretto), the "Carbs" aria also brings to mind "us/them" and "we are a/the bomb" issues. Us/them: we need food calories for our ENERGY calories just like the bomb releases tremendous energy in an explosion--are we really different? We created the bomb/the bomb issued from us, so isn't true that we are inextricably linked to the bomb (it's not really the OTHER). Side comment: the physicality of one baritone singing the aria (as seen on TV) made me think that his (rotundish) body had the solidity of a bomb.

Anonymous said...

ETA: Of course, I just started READING your blog ...