Monday, November 24, 2008


Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, 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 betroth’d 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.

- John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV

A little over seven months ago, I stood with Elder Daughter at the hypocenter of the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion. It was a powerfully emotional moment, as was our subsequent visit to the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Believing as I do that the atomic bombing of Japan was a tragic necessity, given the circumstances of the time, did not diminish the psychological impact of seeing the photographs, hearing the voices...and knowing that this was the very spot where it happened, where over 140,000 lives were sacrificed to nuclear fire.

The performance of John Adams’s opera “Doctor Atomic” the Missus and I saw yesterday afternoon was no less emotionally striking.

Modern Opera is not for everybody. I know that there are parts of Adams’s other masterwork, the acclaimed “Nixon in China,” that make She Who Must Be Obeyed want to yank her hair out by the roots...yet she was brave enough to accompany me to the Atlanta Symphony Hall for yesterday’s semi-staged show. And she actually enjoyed it!

We had excellent seats: fourth row center orchestra, close enough to see every facial expression, every twitch of conductor Robert Spano’s baton. And an extra treat (for me, anyway) was seeing James Maddelena, the baritone who originated the role of Nixon in “Nixon in China,” playing Chief Meteorologist Frank Hubbard.

Gerald Finley, as Robert Oppenheimer, was superb, giving the appropriate weight to his powerful arias, while the other performers (including Richard Paul Fink as Dr. Edward Teller and Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves) more than held up their end. The libretto, drawn from elements as diverse as John Donne (the above sonnet being rendered as an aria by Oppenheimer); the Bhagavad-Gita; various communications and documents from Los Alamos; Charles Baudelaire; and Tewa Indian poetry, at times sounded a bit like the nutty writing on the Eggagog blog (SWMBO cracked me up at one point by pointing that out), but told the story very effectively.

How do you show an atomic explosion on stage? You don’t. But you bring the subsonics up to a tooth-rattling level...and, while the protagonists cover their eyes with welder’s glass, you project an image of the Trinity fireball, followed by a photograph of a Japanese woman and her daughter amidst the chaos of Hiroshima.

The closing voiceover is that of a Japanese victim, quietly begging for water.

Mizu-o kudasai...
Mizu-o kudasai...
Mizu-o kudasai...

I knew those words; I had seen and heard them before, in the Memorial Hall in Hiroshima. They were a fitting and eloquent coda, and they made my heart pound with remembered emotion.

Want a taste? Here you go:

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