Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic

Continuing in my current obsession with John Adams' new opera, "Doctor Atomic" I recently learned of a documentary filmed at the time the opera was being created in San Francisco. Of course, I had to have it. Now I do.

What a fascinating film this is. It comes at you from two interesting perspectives as both historical documentary and a major art project. In easily digestable format director Jon Else combines interviews, rehearsal footage and commentary by the cast and creators of Doctor Atomic - weaving in the story of the development of the atom bomb and the Manhattan Project. All of it is narrated by the mellow voice of Eric Owens, the baritone who has sung (I beleive) every performance of the role of General Groves.

The marriage of these two stories into a cohesive whole works wonders itself, as a perfect balance is struck between following the creation of a new opera and the history of nuclear physics involved in creating the bomb. For those whom this sounds bizarre, to say the least, let me say, I can't think of anyone who's interest would not be held - or even riveted by the manner in which its done.

There is fascinating interview footage with Oppenheimer himself, disturbing shots and clips of bombs testings (not easy to watch) and one truly gets a sense of the project as well as a sense of the bizarre community that occupied Trinity. It was interesting as well to see and hear the singers approaching their music in the first rehearsals, taking suggestions from the composer who was still very much working on the piece, changing things as they went along. Peter Sellars can bother some folk, but his infectiousness and thoughtfulness clearly command the respect of all of his cast members, as well as the composer himself.

Especially moving for me was seeing Finley rehearsing his big first act aria for the first time . . . this piece simply destroying me every time. To hear his own connection with it, how he wishes it had been something he had actually written, speaks volumes about his identification with the piece. It's overwhelming.

It is unnerving watching film clips of bombs 60 years ago - then seeing life- sized props being brought into the War Memorial Opera House (the name of the building really taking an unusually strong symbolism here).

There was some REAL backstage drama which I remembered reading about when it happened, but since forgotten (til now, of course!). Tom Randle - a favorite of many of ours - and portraying Robert Wilson in the opera was let go a little more than a week before opening night, replaced by his understudy, Thomas Glenn. The scene of Randle reading the announcement is one of those horrifying things every performer dreads.

I can't stress enough how unusual a movie this is - very powerful on all accounts. If I've a gripe it's only a wish for some extras, deleted scenes, photo galleries, more bio material, etc. Other than that, it's one amazing movie.

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