Experts discuss controversial opera adaptations

Monday, February 6, 2006

“Unsettling Opera,” a panel dis-cussion of operatic productions, brought together prominent scholars and members of the opera community Thursday and Friday to consider five contentious works – four adaptations of classic operas and a fifth original work.

The forum, held in Grant Recital Hall, was sponsored by the Cogut Humanities Center and conceived by its director, Professor of History and Music Michael Steinberg.

The workshop began Thurs-day evening with “Dr. Atomic,” the new work by John Adams, who has enjoyed perhaps the most popular and commercial success of any American composer of his generation.

“Unsettling Opera” was lucky enough to have in attendance maverick Peter Sellars, who directed “Dr. Atomic” and adapted its libretto from sources as di-verse as declassified government documents, the “Bhagavad Gita” and the poems of Charles Baudeliere. Sellars, called “one of the smartest people I ever met” by New York Times critic John Rockwell, who was also present, proved to be one of the panel’s most compelling speakers.

“Dr. Atomic” tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist known as “the father of the atomic bomb;” his wife, Kitty; and a few other figures in the Manhattan Project in the two weeks leading up to the bomb’s first test.

Set in the New Mexico desert, it is an opera more concerned with the psychologies of its characters and the uncomfor-table tension of their situation than with the drama created by the explosion upon which the plot rests. Tension and uncertainty reverberate through the knotty, intricate and often Wagnerian score and are manifested on stage by dark, shadowy lighting cast on characters who seem to glow radioactively.

Sellars expressed his hope that “Dr. Atomic” might “put back on the table the question of elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

His 1989 production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” considered widely controversial when it premiered for its setting in a Trump Tower penthouse, was one of four operas that were screened and discussed Friday.

While the production re-surfaces the opera with a com-mercialized Manhattan sheen, making it more relevant to a modern audience, underneath the business suits and behind the backdrop of Central Park are the same brilliant music and grip-ping drama that are at its heart. The quirks of characterization are not intended to replace, but to build upon and enrich previous and more historically based performances, and to offer a compelling reading for a contemporary audience weaned on TV, fast food and brand names, which Sellars lampoons during the overture.

Though some opera-goers remain faithful to more traditional readings, panelist Pamela Rosenberg, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, emphasized that our ears and eyes are not the ears and eyes of the past (in the case of “Figaro,” the 1780s), having been exposed to all manner of sound and spectacle unimaginable in earlier times, and thus seeing and hearing an opera as it was originally performed is impossible.

Rosenberg is in the midst of a month-long stay at Brown as a Cogut Center Visiting Fellow. Her desire for an opera about an American Faust spurred the commission for “Dr. Atomic,” and, having worked as director of the Stuttgart Opera for ten years prior to her engagement in San Francisco, she was unique among panelists for her insight into the commercial world of opera.

The event featured discussions on three additional operas: Walter Felsenstein’s production of Verdi’s “Otello,” Patrice Chereau’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” and Jossi Wieler’s production of Handel’s “Alcina.”

Without exception, the panelists commented insightfully and engaged each other and the audience on topics from wearing pajamas to the role of opera in politics.

The panelists’ enthusiasm for the event spread through the room, which maintained close to a full house throughout the event. Alex Kotch ’06 said he “loved hearing all those intellectuals babble about opera staging and seeing how the contemporary stage director can adapt older music and stories to our current mode of life.”