Friday, September 05, 2014


Most symbolical and pessimistic tale about war and no peace


We are dealing here with a highly political subject and opera. We are dealing here with the scientists who invented, tested and then supervised the use of the first atom bomb ever produced, tested and used in the world. The main character is thus Oppenheimer himself with a couple of his colleagues and the military personnel that is following the project. We are after the victory over Germany and before the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that will bring the surrender of Japan, or should I say precede Japan’s surrender that was expected any time before the bombs were dropped. The opera only considers the stakes and ethical questions of the scientists themselves. The fact that the use of these atom bombs will bring the Cold War is not even considered, it is even hinted at as being a common project with the Soviet Union, which is totally false. It was a unilateral action of the US that could have been avoided politically and militarily because it was purely useless: the victory and the surrender of Japan was only a question of days.

Even so this opera is strongly anti-military and anti-atomic from the purely scientific point of view. Ethics are here and there alluded to, especially by second zone scientists, not the top ones, but it is only anecdotes more than real facts and actions. The opera’s libretto is supposed to have been written from authentic documents, and it contains a lot of literary quotations. This implies the positions defended by the two top scientists and the top general in this case are supposed to be authentic, in spite of the numerous and long literary quotations that are set in Oppenheimer’s mouth. The anti-war and anti-atomic meaning of the opera is not really expressed as such, but can be derived from what is being said, because it may freeze our blood in our own veins.

First of all the chorus opening the opera is scientifically fundamental.

“Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.” . . . “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form. But now we know that matter may become energy and thus be altered in form.”

It was known before since Einstein had proposed it as a theory. But the atomic research, today known as nuclear research, proved it. All is energy and energy is material by essence. It is the volatile and flexible form of matter and matter is nothing but an assemblage of energy. This is frightening because it states there was no creation, hence no possible god or other event that would have brought the world into existence from nothing. This is frightening because everything in the world being matter and energy and the former being only a particular form of the latter we are nothing but an assemblage of energy particles. That brings up the fundamental principle of Buddhism: we are part of cosmic energy and our material existence is nothing but a transient condensation of this energy in our evanescent body and being. No divine soul, nothing stable and long-lasting in us, nothing but unstable energy that can be released or can release itself eventually. Life is not our essence, death is and life is nothing but a short suspension of that death thanks to the condensation of a certain amount of energy into our likeness we call our body or our mind, and death is only the point when and where the enrgy that composes our body is restructured, naturally altered in form. Religion is totally side-tracked and even science is marginalized. The scientist is a sorcerer’s apprentice playing with some natural criteria and parameters that we cannot control. At best, maybe, we can manage them so that we do not get burnt up or destroyed by our tinkering about.

We are not then surprised by what Oppenheimer says about the soul:

“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss [the loss of human conscience due to the work on this humanity-negating nuclear energy] I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card.”

We are beyond the negation of God. We have reached here the reduction of the divine soul to some kind of ethical essence that is anyway nothing at all and practically rejected by Oppenheimer. To do what he or they is or are doing he or they must have no soul whatsoever. When the scientist who is second in command says that they should speak up and try to influence the politicians who are making the decisions how to use this atomic power he is rebutted by Oppenheimer in the most condescending way possible:

“The nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington.”

Who says they are the best men? And the principles of the use of this atomic power in Japan are simple:

“. . . Psychological factors in selecting the targets are of great importance. . . We cannot give the Japanese any warning. . . Doctor Conant suggests a vital war plant is the most desirable target, employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by worker’s houses. . . Several strikes would be feasible. . . The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used, and no agreement will help. Would we have started the atomic age with clean hands?”

Then everything has been said and the only words that can be used here are cynicism, hypocrisy, unconsciousness, vanity and of course thirst and hunger for power and prestige, even if criminal. The attitude of the General is typical: he wants to command the weather, order nature to do what he wants and abide by his law, or diktat. And this libretto is nearly nice on the subject because it does not speak of the time when the bomb must be dropped, which is early enough in the morning to catch the workers going to work and the children going to school to make sure the casualties are essentially innocent and totally non military by definition, even if they work in some military factories, though children do not. Civilian victims are not even collateral. They are the target. We are dealing here with a crime against humanity and it necessarily feeds the thirst and hunger for authority in many men.

Then the wrapping it up in Oppenheimer’s wife’s pangs of conscience is useless since she has no say in what is happening. Her husband neither by the way. The attitude of some disagreeing scientists like Wilson in the opera is just vain and useless, if not hypocritical, since they know security would stop their petition before it even entered the oval office or penetrate the White House. And we have nothing to say about Oppenheimer himself and his near nervous breakdown during the count down for the test. Do not even mention the cynical Teller, second in command in the scientific team, who is just up-handedly brandishing some negative arguments as his taste for black humor allows him to make fun of everything. Cynicism and foolishness are the main two characters of these people. Note the fact that humanity will always do what it can do, no matter how criminal or dangerous it may be, is not really questioned and anyway if Americans did not do it, Germans would do it, or the Japanese, or Russians. There is in this opera a fatality in history: always will human beings invent new weapons that will always have to be more and more destructive.

The conclusion comes from Oppenheimer who does not speak in his own words but quote a sonnet by John Donne. He addresses a plea to “three-person’d God” to take him and imprison him because by becoming the prisoner of God he could be freed from God’s enemy who he is “betroth’d to.” This is a vision of absolute dependence, total and final subservience, immense and yet divided obedience.

The only challenge then comes from Oppenheimer’s Navajo nurse and maid, Pasqualita, who brings in that bleak picture a more “natural” approach. First a lullaby from her culture to put the baby to sleep: the Cloud-Flower Lullaby, one of the Songs of the Tewa translated by Herbert Joseph Spinden and published in 1933. The Tewa are Pueblo Indians, who live on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. 

“In the north the cloud-flower blossoms,
And now the lightning flashes,
And now the thunder clashes,
And now the rain comes down!
A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.”

It will be repeated four times. The full stanza for the west, next the south, and finally the east, but in this last case Pasqualita will be interrupted after two lines.

Then Pasqualita will quote part of the eighth elegy, from the 1949 volume “Eligies” by Muriel Rukeyser, which is an evocation of the dead during the WWII, and their possible return that will never happen (being sung by Pasqualita we could think it means the Indians who were killed during the Indian wars and the Indian genocide):

“Then word came from a runner, a stranger:
“They are dancing to bring the dead back, in the mountains.”
We danced at an autumn fire, we danced the old hate and change,
The coming again of our leaders. But they did not come.

The winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.
News came on the frost, “The dead are on the march!”
We danced in prison to a winter music,
Many we loved began to dream of the dead.
They made no promises, we never dreamed a threat. 
And the dreams spread.

In the summer dreaming was common to all of us,
The drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,
Music to bind us as the visions streamed
And midnight brightened to belief.
In the morning we told our dreams.
They all were the same dream.”

This is of course the evocation of World War II and the fifty million casualties, and in particular, since Muriel Rukeyser is Jewish, the fate of the Jews in the Shoah. They were gone and they did not come back. They were taken beyond the gate of light that casts no shade and they never came back.

The only solace or support Oppenheimer can find in his situation is an evocation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity, who is brought forward by the chorus in a translation that seems personal. We have to keep in mind Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit in 1933, and the “Baghavad Gītā” in particular. He declared to Christian Century Magazine in 1963:

"The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom."

But the quotation the “Baghavad Gītā” sounds like a very poor solace and a deep anguish if not fear in front of the imminent first explosion of this bomb:

“At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”
(“Baghavad Gītā” Chapter 11, verses 23 & 24)

The end of the opera is situated in the text two minutes before the test. But the opera in this stage production is slightly different.

We can know shift to the music and the stage production.

The opera divides the stage in three spaces: in the foreground Oppenheimer’s home with one night scene with his wife in bed first: a scene that was supposed to be sentimental if not erotic and that turns into some very distantly metaphorical evocation of sensuous pleasures centered on perfumes, the perfumes he finds in his wife’s hair and that evoke fruit, foliage and human skin. But he was working on some document at the beginning, he stopped for a short while and he interrupted this sentimental drift to go back to his bomb. Then that private space will be occupied by Kitty Oppenheimer, her infant daughter in a cradle, the Navajo nurse and later three helpers for that nurse. Two short incursions of Peter Oppenheimer, their son can be noted. This private space is centered on the baby and the five women are only there to take care of her.

In a middle stripe on the stage we have the labs and the bomb with two types of personnel, the scientists on one side and then the military people who are managing the first test of this bomb with the scientists, and also trying to manage the weather and the scientists.

Further back, hence in the background of the stage we have an open space where dancers intervene very often, most of the time six dancing on a circle, and once four dancing on parallel lines running from left to right. Personally I do not see what these dancers are bringing to the opera, except that they are dancing in circles like the scientists and the soldiers who are activating themselves, running in circles mostly after their own tails like Chopin’s Little Dog Waltz.

Then the back of the stage is most of the time cut in two layers, a top layer that is black and a layer between that top layer and the back line of the stage that is used for light. It is often white, but can be blue or red according to the scenes.

Thus the stage is visually putting one on top of the other five layers from the foreground to the top of the backdrop. This is very interesting for the DVD because cameras can shift from one layer to the next and concentrate or zoom in onto one section of these layers, on one face, one character. We practically never have a full vision of the stage, which is kind of frustrating.

The music is essentially some accompanying music behind the singing. The singing itself having to be clearly understood because of the pregnancy of the text is more chanted than sung. There are very few instances when the singing has any kind of musical complication. At times it is even slightly humdrum. But then the music behind and in-between two sentences can be rich and impressive but always of the accompanying type used to amplify the meaning of the words.

The singing emphasizes some words or phrases by repeating them and such repetitions are never gratuitous and are most of the time triple repetition or a triple simple repetition with a fourth one that is one word longer, or one word shorter. This pattern of four being clearly three plus one is an echo to John Donne’s “three-personed God” and this Christian reference is important because then the extension to four is necessarily the extension to the crucifixion. This is a direct allusion to these scientists who are probably very religious in their common life (saying graces at every meal, going to church every Sunday, etc) and yet their very activity is making them the agent of the devil, “your enemy” in Donne’s words. Donne’s richness is not entirely used. For example the last five lines of the sonnet are very rich in this symbolical way:

“But am betroth’d to your enemy (A),
Divorce me (1), untie (2), or break that knot again (3),
Take me to you (4), imprison me (5), for I
Except (B) you enthrall me (6), never shall be free (C),
Nor ever chaste (D), except (E) you ravish me (7).”

The enemy is A-B-C-D-E, hence a pentacle, the devil of course. God is asked to do seven things hence the holy week that ends we must keep in mind on the crucifixion and the resurrection. The crucifixion is carried by the four negatives B-C-D-E- within the pentacle of the devil. And the seven requests to God plus the five attachments to the devil make twelve and there we are whole again since it is the number of the Last Supper’s participants, once Judas, the supposed traitor is gone.

In fact in the first scene of the second act Kitty in a long poem by Muriel Rukeyser introduces Jesus:

“. . . This earth-long day
Between blood and resurrection where we wait
Remembering sun, seed, fire; remembering
That fierce Judaean Innocent who risked
Every immortal meaning on one life.”

Jesus, the Judaean Innocent is captured in our memories between blood and resurrection, the crucifixion on the Friday afternoon (death at the ninth hour) and the resurrection on the Sunday morning.

The music thus puts up this drama. We could say a lot more.

A last remark. The opera starts with black and white images of war scenes, desolation, dead people, bombings, and it ends with the color vision of all the actors and singers lying on their stomach on the ground while the sound tracks gives us some Japanese remarks from people after a bombing looking for help of for relatives, and these Japanese sentences are duly translated in English for us to see the meaning, at least on the DVD. Before we had simple bombings and after the test shown on the stage it will be the next generation of bombings, the atomic generation and the desolation of survivors. War is a cycle from one battle to the next and it never stops.

This opera is not a call for peace. It is a pessimistic call for the end of that ever going war process that is human by essence and we know it will never end.

And it may live for generations in our modern universe because of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome it may build in the survivors and the descendants of the survivors, be it only in the morbid celebrations of the “victories” that were never that glorious, due to the horror committed by the victors during the war, and these horrors were often just as horrible as those committed by the defeated ones. Is Coventry in any way worse than Dresden, Pearl Harbor than Hiroshima?


May 24, 2010

Superbly Sinister

The subject of the opera is tragically dramatic. Germany has capitulated. The first test of the atom bomb has not yet taken place. A handful of scientists work on the project cut off from the rest of the world. Roosevelt is dead and Truman is in the job. The scientists would prefer to postpone the test and cancel the use of this bomb. The military authorities and the political higher-ups want to imprint onto the world their absolute mark that they are number one and unchallengeable. The test will have to be done (at the end of the first act) and the real bomb will have to be dropped (at the end of the second act). Reduced to that the argument is light and yet politically powerful. But the opera is a lot more than that. It is showing the inside of the minds of these scientists, their doubts and their certainties. Their doubts that this bomb is of any use now the only danger in that line, i.e. Germany is off the killing ground. Their certainties that this bomb will be a weapon of such mass destruction that it should leave the world dead or at least dead silent. This bomb should not be used. This bomb was used and should not have been used. But the second act is by far more important in that tragic line because it centers on the women and the fear and awe they develop in front of the horror of this bomb. They sort of visualize the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies lying around anywhere with no warning whatsoever or so little. Kitty Oppenheimer and Pasqualita are admirable in their parts. A soprano and a mezzo-soprano that are so close and so different at the same time that their voices sound like the echo of each other, though Pasqualita is the echo of Kitty Oppenheimer soaring up from the depth of hell itself and Kitty Oppenheimer is the echo of Pasqualita roaming around in a complete and infinite waste land. They dominate and control the whole act and their silent unblinking faces at the end are the deepest and most ethical humane condemnation of what their men have just been doing. But it is an opera you will say. And it is. The stage directing is very empty, blank, nude. Just some props here and there and a few dancers in the background. The music is a beauty in its plainness and in its extremely somber sounds and very often or even most of the time un-melodious chiseling. The notes are often flat one after another and when there is a high dive or a deep jump it is always to express some kind of torn and tortured soul visited by the crimes that are going to be committed and that no one can stop or prevent. I would even say that John Adams wants his music to sound like gravel lamenting the murderous mind of men in a long dirge that will end up in silent on some kind of chaotic polyrhythmic percussion piece tolling away for who knows whom who ordered the massacre just for political and military convenience.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID

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