By Dennis Polkow
“Does he still have the spiky hair?” asks a visitor who hasn’t seen director Peter Sellars in years. “Yes, ” offers a Lyric Opera staffer, “and oddly enough, there is no mousse, no hairspray, it’s just—well, spiky.” Actually, as a now 50-year-old (but still boyish-looking) Sellars makes his way from the rehearsal stage, his hair looks like a surfeit of snakes standing at attention.
If opera is the domain of the director, there is no director more legendary and eccentric than Sellars, who not only revolutionized the genre with his bold, modern interpretations of the classics, but also by commissioning iconic new works as well that often touch deep social nerves. We haven’t seen Sellars in Chicago for nearly two decades—okay, he did direct a “Merchant of Venice” at Goodman back in 1994—but he sent shock waves throughout the opera world by staging “The Mikado” here on motorcycles in 1983 and then making “Tannhäuser” a disgraced televangelist in 1988. Sellers grins ear to ear when he is told that Lyric’s general director Bill Mason counts these daring and radical productions as among the finest that Lyric ever produced.
Despite the fact that Sellars has been a constant collaborator with composer John Adams for more than two decades now, “Doctor Atomic” is the first Adams opera that Sellers is directing at Lyric Opera. Their inaugural 1987 “Nixon in China” was heard last year at Chicago Opera Theater and “El Nino” was heard at Ravinia, but “Doctor Atomic” is the first Adams opera ever presented at Lyric and the first production that Sellars has directed at the company since “Tannhäuser.”
Ironically, Adams was not an opera lover, nor even an opera goer, but Sellars told Adams that his music contained such drama that he simply “insisted” that Adams had to work in the form. “Nixon in China” was Sellars’ idea, as have been most of their collaborations. “Not ‘El Nino,’ ” Sellers is quick to point out. “A nativity play? No, that was a commission.”Adams came to Sellars, however, with “Doctor Atomic,” and Sellars was against it at first.
“As artists, we are not equipped to show Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki,” Sellars says. “At a certain point, art trivializes things that are truly unspeakable and should not be aestheticized in any way. For me, what was therefore necessary was to draw very clear lines around what we did have the capability of showing and talking about and what we didn’t, and to have the humility in the face of the subject matter to confine ourselves to one twenty-four-hour period: the first atomic test on July 16, 1945.”
The genesis of “Atomic” is the San Francisco Opera asking Adams for a contribution to its 2005 “Faust” season of operas, with Robert Oppenheimer suggested as a modern Faust figure who sold his soul to create the first atomic bomb. “We set to work with Alice Goodman, who had written the librettos for ‘Nixon’ and ‘Klinghoffer,’” Sellars recalls, “and Alice is the person who said, ‘Actually, at the end of his life, Faust signed away and lost his immortal soul, whereas at the end of his life, Robert Oppenheimer realized that he had one.’” Ultimately, Sellars himself ended up writing the libretto, and he is flanked in his backstage office by dozens of books about physics and the bomb. “It’s not an accident that ‘Doctor Faustus’ was such a powerful image in the twentieth century, and we ended up honoring Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Mann with our play on their title. Mann’s novel was very important for the generation that created the bomb, and they were seeing themselves in those images. It really is a Greek tragedy, taking place across a single twenty-four-hour period. The audience walks in with Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War and nuclear accidents and cover-ups as the future that these men are bringing into the world.”
Sellars is clear that, for him, Oppenheimer begins heroically, “with the idea that the Nazis were going after the bomb and that our beating them to doing it was the only thing that could prevent them from taking over the world. But once Germany surrendered and we realized that there had been no German atomic program as such, we went ahead with the program anyway and unleashed it on civilian cities in Japan to establish ourselves as the world’s lone superpower. Did 350,000 people have to die to test our experiment?
“The fallout of this action is that right now, at this moment, in silos in Russia, there are nuclear warheads at hair-trigger alert, pointing at the city of Chicago. Why? We are not at war. We need to complete the steps that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev began in the back of a limo, of eliminating all of them. It’s not a question of North Korea or Iran having them: there is no reason for any of them to exist, anywhere. The toxins that have been released since 1945 means that cancer is the disease of choice and every one of us knows someone who is in chemotherapy right this minute. Every one of us has Strontium-90 in our blood cells and bone marrow at this moment from atomic blasts; it is in our milk, our bones, it is throughout the world right now as we continue to be assured that such high levels of radioactivity are perfectly safe.”
He continues, “What is abundantly clear is that nobody can use these weapons. It’s no longer one nation versus another, you release a toxicity that creates a cloud that goes throughout the world. Henry Kissinger and George Schultz are currently at the forefront of the movement to eliminate these weapons. This is no longer conservative versus liberal. This is an issue for all of humanity. We have to eliminate seventy years of profoundly misguided policy and not carry it forward into the twenty-first century.”
“Doctor Atomic” at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker, (312)332-2244.