Arts & Events

Updated: Overview: Why I Find John Adams’ Operas Half-Cooked

James Roy MacBean
Friday December 01, 2017 - 04:54:00 PM

In reviewing a few days ago the latest opera by John Adams, I headlined my review, “Girls of the Golden West: Another Half-Cooked Turkey by John Adams.” It occurred to me, however, that in reviewing a disjointed opera that went on for nearly three and a half hours, I might well describe it as over-cooked rather than half-cooked. Nonetheless, I decided that “half-cooked” was a more apt characterization of John Adams’ operas. In the present article I’ll delineate why so many of the works by John Adams, especially his operas, seem to me half-cooked. 

Let’s start with the first opera by John Adams – Nixon in China (1987). In this opera Adams teamed up with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. Seeing Nixon in China when it first came out, I found it both pretentious and distressing. Nixon, of course, was an easy target. Writing stiff, awkward music for James Maddalena to sing as the stiff, awkward Richard Nixon may have worked as a way of musically characterizing Nixon, but, nonetheless, it was bad music. Likewise, Adams’ goofy repetitions of Nixon’s ‘news’ reports from his trip to China struck me as both a facile way of sending up Richard Nixon and anything but good music. Further, in the bit of music most often re-played from Nixon in China – “The Chairman Dances” – I found this glib foxtrot a most uninteresting bit of repetitive minimalist rhythmic opportunism. “The Chairman Dances,” as Grammophone editors put it, was “minimalism’s eternal um chum,” or endless ostinato. On the whole, I found Nixon in China almost devoid of serious musical interest. 

Next came The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Once again, Adams teamed up with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars in this opera based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise-ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian militants who sought to draw attention to the dire plight of Palestinians under oppressive Israeli occupation. During the course of their hijacking, they toppled overboard an elderly American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, who was confined to a wheelchair. The Palestinians rationalized this barbaric act by pointing out that in supporting Israel American Jews were complicit in the stark oppression of the Palestinians.  

There is a great danger, obviously, in trying to create an art-work, perhaps especially an opera, out of yesterday’s news. Operas generally deal in universals and are meant to be relevant for a long time, eternity perhaps. This said, I welcome attempts to go against the grain. Giuseppe Verdi, of all people, went against the grain when in 1853 he set La Traviata in the very recent past, i.e., in Paris of the 1840s; and, moreover, he dared to create a character, Violetta, clearly based on a famed contemporary courtesan, Marie Duplessis. As you might expect, the opera world was shocked by Verdi’s La Traviata when it was first performed. Now, of course, La Traviata is rightfully considered one of the world’s finest opera’s. 

Could it be that in creating operas based on current events such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams hoped that going against the grain might win him accolades from the liberal intelligentsia? If so, he gauged correctly where Nixon in China is concerned, for it played into the liberal intelligentsia’s disdain for Richard Nixon. However, where The Death of Klinghoffer is concerned, Adams’ gamble was lost immediately. The Death of Klinghoffer barely opened before it was roundly excoriated from all sides. Music critics, like myself, criticized it for its crude, simplistic music. Others, like Abraham Foxman of the Los Angeles-based Anti-Defamation League, launched a campaign against it by claiming that it was anti-Semitic. As progressive Jewish friends of mine confided, with considerable regret, this was a tactical ploy very insidiously utilized by Foxman to label as anti-Semitic anything offering a somewhat accurate report of Palestinian positions. By this ploy one discredits any even-handed reportage of the Arab-Israeli conflict by alleging that it stems from prejudice against Jews. (By the way, the term anti-Semitism is a misnomer, for Arabs and Jews are both Semitic peoples. In more ways than one, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a fight, albeit an unequal one, among brethren.)  

In any case, musically, the only moments I found worthwhile in The Death of Klinghoffer were the choruses. For the rest, this opera, like Nixon in China, struck me, and not only me, as mere notes and sketches for an opera that might someday be written. But served up as the finished product these operas seemed only half-way there. In short, they struck me as half-cooked. 

Let’s move on now to consider Doctor Atomic by John Adams, an opera I saw at its premiere in San Francisco in 2005. In Doctor Atomic, Adams worked for the first time without Alice Goodman as librettist, a task taken over for this opera by director Peter Sellars. Doctor Atomic purported to tell the tale of the making of the Atom bomb the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II. The bomb-making project was headed by nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who figures as the central protagonist in the libretto fashioned by Peter Sellars. Of course, in a group of brilliant, high-powered men working on the bomb project at a secret desert site in Los Alamos, Oppenheimer had his share of antagonists. John Adams’ opera features, in addition to Oppenheimer, the ego-centric Edward Teller, a concerned General Leslie Groves, and an idealistic Robert Wilson, all of whom occasionally sparred with Oppenheimer. In Doctor Atomic, the Peter Sellars-John Adams team focuses on the nervous weeks and days up to the first test explosion of the atomic bomb, a process given the sobriquet The Trinity Project.  

In this three-hour long opera, John Adams writes much music that once again recycles the minimalist ostinatos of his earlier operas. Here too, in Doctor Atomic I found these lengthy, musically repetitive passages boring in the extreme when they weren’t downright irritating. (To be fair to Adams, I am equally unimpressed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Nor am I impressed by the eccentric music of Charles Ives, another composer Adams cites as having influenced him.)  

However, at the end of Act I of Doctor Atomic, in a scene where Oppenheimer reads aloud to his wife, Kitty, the Holy Sonnet XIV by British poet John Donne (1572-1631), which sonnet inspired Oppenheimer to give the nuclear test project the name of The Trinity Project, John Adams wrote music that, for once – and perhaps for the only time -- struck me as intensely moving. Hearing baritone Gerard Finley sing the words of this John Donne sonnet at the premiere of Doctor Atomic in San Francisco was a moment I’ll never forget.  

The opening words, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” were delivered like hammer-blows set to highly percussive music. In this sonnet, John Donne, who was both a devout Christian and a notorious womanizer, likened the getting of religion to a woman being violently raped; and he dared to imply that the woman should be grateful to receive the holy seed. I credit librettist Peter Sellars for understanding how this ultra-masculine notion of Christianity fitted in perfectly, albeit frightfully, with the all-male fraternity of nuclear physicists busily working on the most powerful weapon of mass-destruction the world had ever seen. It’s about an act of violence conceived and carried out by men to be used against innocent women, children, and civilians. But I also credit John Adams with creating extraordinarily moving music for the reading of this sonnet.  

In fact, I congratulated John Adams in person at the War Memorial Opera House during the intermission that ensued at the close of Act I of Doctor Atomic. I added that I was all the more impressed at being won over by this music because of the fact that I had intensely disliked his earlier operas. At this, John Adams blanched and refused to accept my congratulations, as if unable to hear any criticism or to appreciate how far he had to go in winning my heartfelt congratulations for the music I had just found so movingly apt. What this personal encounter says about the ego of John Adams I’ll leave to others to contemplate. Suffice it to say that the remainder of this three-hour opera, like everything leading up to the John Donne sonnet, seemed to me utterly unremarkable and boring. Once again, if a three-hour-long opera can only offer four or five minutes of music that is inspiring, while all the rest is boring if not downright irritating, it too deserves to be called half-cooked. 

Before moving on to discuss the latest opera by John Adams, Girls of the Golden West, I’d like to say a word or two about his 2015 oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which was given a semi-staged production by San Francisco Symphony this year in February. For this oratorio Adams worked once again with Peter Sellars, who this time gathered texts of all sorts and from many different eras that might conceivably shed a feminist light on both the Christian Gospels and our current highly provocative gender politics. Peter Sellars is good at this sort of thing. His collages generally offer multiple vantage points on issues that were once topical and are now topical once again, and Sellars illuminates the connections between then and now. The question remains, however, whether out of these collages of disparate material the composer John Adams can create music that moves us.  

In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, I found the answer to this question to be a resounding “NO!” In attempting to place his music in parallel with the magnificent Passions of J.S. Bach, John Adams only succeeded in revealing the vast gap between himself and Bach. As I said in my review of The Gospel According to the Other Mary (in the February 23, 2017 issue of Berkeley Daily Planet), I observed that whereas Bach, in his Passions, can make even an atheist share in the grief and anguish of Christ’s death on the cross, John Adams, himself an atheist or at least an agnostic, (he has acknowledged he is no church-goer and adheres to no religious doctrine), offers here only a pastiche of affectations of emotions. Ultimately, in spite of one lovely musical moment involving a poem by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi in which a paean of praise is sung to the Jewish Passover, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, like the early operas by John Adams, simply left me feeling empty. It too seemed half-cooked, pretentiously striving for far more than the limited powers of John Adams could possibly achieve.  

So let us turn, finally, to Girls of the Golden West, the John Adams-Peter Sellars opera that just premiered in San Francisco on November 22, 2017. For once, I am far from being alone in critiquing this John Adams opera as shallow, dull, and self-indulgent. Nearly every local review of Girls of the Golden West has been overwhelmingly negative. Moreover, they have criticized this opera in the very same tones that I, unlike most media reviewers, have criticized Adams’ earlier operas. While I am gratified that Joshua Kosman, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, upbraids Girls of the Golden West for the same reasons I do, I am dismayed to read in his review (of November 23, 2017) that Kosman alleges that Adams’ earlier operas were “such masterpieces as Nixon in China and (on balance) Doctor Atomic.”  

As I have detailed above, I find that neither Nixon in China nor Doctor Atomic, much less The Death of Klinghoffer, could reasonably qualify as successful, fully realized operas, much less masterpieces. To me, I emphasize, they were irretrievably half-cooked. In his review of Girls of the Golden West, Kosman goes one step further that I completely disagree with. He attributes to the absence of Alice Goodman as librettist the “central, defining catastrophe in Adams’operatic career.” Everything I have said above about the two operas on which Alice Goodman served as Adams’ librettist ought to be sufficient to show you how vehemently I reject this assertion. I acknowledge that Alice Goodman did remarkable work in making the libretto of Nixon in China palatable, and I also acknowledge that in the much more challenging task of making the libretto of The Death of Klinghoffer at least somewhat palatable (though not to the Abe Foxmans of this world), Alice Goodman deserves quite a bit of credit. However, if you have understood anything of what I have written above in this article, you will notice that I am so far from claiming Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, or even Doctor Atomic as masterpieces, that it would be more accurate to say that I consider them all half-cooked failures. To my way of thinking, there is no break between earlier John Adams and later, post-Alice Goodman John Adams. The early and more recent operas by John Adams all suffer from the same, endlessly repeated flaws. They are all, as it were, half-cooked. As I said in my review of Girls of the Golden West, John Adams may be the most over-rated composer in today’s world. In this article, I have attempted to show why I think this is so. 

NOTE: Some previous editorial errors have been corrected.