For my first three decades, even though I liked classical music (my main interests were then pop, rock and jazz), I would tell friends – and, indeed, myself – that I had no time for opera: that it was a mish-mash of inferior drama, inferior poetry and inferior music. Naturally, I’d reached this absurd conclusion without actually having bothered to listen properly to any opera. It was my then film-critic colleague Anne Billson who pointed to my misguided ignorance. ‘Try some Puccini,’ she said. ‘After all, you like Douglas Sirk.’ The allusion to the director of fabulous melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life was intriguing. Then another friend made me a tape consisting of great arias that had been used in movies. I listened to it, enjoyed it, and decided to jettison my ludicrous prejudice.
Fast-forward many years. While far from an opera nut (I still have some serious blind spots), I do take an interest, and most years manage to spend three or four evenings indulging myself in the magic of a much-misunderstood musical form. One highpoint has been the work of John Adams, a favourite of mine since the mid-80s, who is now probably the world’s most successful living composer of ‘serious’ music in terms of performances, recordings, reputation and fame. He’s even succeeded in composing – and having seen performed – four operas (as well as a number of likewise rewarding staged pieces like El Nino, A Flowering Tree and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which are more closely aligned to oratorios or other forms).
Like most people I’ve yet to hear the recently premiered Girls of the Golden West, but the three earlier operas – Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic – are not only works I’ve seen performed live, but I have them all on CD or DVD. It is, in fact, the belated, long-awaited release of Adams’ third opera on CD that gives rise to this blog. (Incidentally, the picture of men lying down at the top of this piece is from the scene in the opera depicting the countdown to the test explosion of the atomic bomb.) I saw the work’s UK premiere performed by ENO at the Coliseum, and for some time I’ve had it on DVD (performed by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra), but the new Nonesuch release, with the composer himself conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, really brings out the piece’s virtues with great clarity, subtlety and power.
Adams, while steeped in modernism and minimalism, is a very accessible composer, alert to the appeal of tonality, melody, and rhythmic energy and variety. His operas, perhaps primarily notable to some for their political-historical-ethical resonance, feature some very memorable arias and choruses. Nixon in China boasts ‘News has a kind of history’ and ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung’; The Death of Klinghoffer opens with a couple of lovely choruses and closes with Mrs Klinghoffer’s devastating outpouring of grief at the loss of her husband. You can watch it here, as performed in Penny Woolcock’s film of the opera.
Doctor Atomic, about the various dilemmas faced by Robert Oppenheimer and others prior to the testing of the bomb at Los Alamos, also boasts a bevy of brilliant moments, – but none, I’d argue, is more impressive than the end of act one, when Oppenheimer sings ‘Batter My Heart’. The aria, adapted from Keats, is performed as wonderfully as one would expect by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who has made the role his own. You can listen to the new version here, or watch the earlier performance with the Dutch orchestra (and Dutch subtitles) below.
So if, like the younger me, you feel opera has nothing to offer you, you could do worse than check out the aforementioned titles by John Adams; the new release is especially fine, and has received extremely positive reviews. You might just be moved to change your mind, and explore further.
Doctor Atomic – like nearly all of John Adams’ work, including the earlier operas – is available on the Nonesuch label. Photo of John Adams by Lambert Orkis. Further information on Adams can be found at his website, earbox.com.