Charles Baudelaire

The Baddest Girl Around

Maybe Canadian-born rapper Drake has never read Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.” Or maybe he has chosen to ignore it.

Drake was ranked #2 on MTV's Hottest MCs In The Game VII list in 2012.

In “Shut It Down” Drake writes, “Baby, you finer than your fine cousin / And your cousin fine, but she don’t have my heart beating in double time” and later asks, “Why do I feel like I found the One?” Drake was 24 when he composed these lines. He was by any definition, even T.S. Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a young poet. Yet his rhymes flow so easily.

In fact, according to a report at, Drake did not write “Shut It Down” with pen and paper, but rather composed it orally to lay over a beat in a studio. He created it out of the ether, as pure music, perhaps without Rilke or Eliot in mind at all.

Whatever their creator’s process or posture towards German Romanticism and Modernist criticism, the lyrics in “Shut It Down” are, arguably, rather dope. But are they among the dopest? A quick survey of love poetry written by male poets will help us find the answer. Let us journey backwards in time, beginning with Rilke himself, whose themes of blindness, shadow, nature, and the soul position him poorly to address a young woman in a nightclub:

It was a girl, really—there is a double joy

of poetry and music that she came from—

and I could see her glowing through her spring clothes:

he writes in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” But then: “she made a place to sleep inside my ear.” Should the young woman in the club decide to give this sonnet sequence a chance, she would discover that she has “no desire to be awake”; “When will she die?” asks the poet. “Do not be afraid to suffer,” he later writes. Scratch.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote poems often in prose and loaded with symbols, among them one particularly memorable love poem that begins, “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air. If you only knew all that I see! all that I feel! all that I hear in your hair!”

The poem goes on and on about hair. By love-poetry standards, Baudelaire gets carried away and kills his subject. He’s enthralled, it would seem, not with the woman herself but with the memories and sentiments she evokes. By symbolizing her he objectifies her. The young woman in the club has heard this before and desires not to hear it again.

A century earlier Alexander Pope sat at his desk in a small, dingy attic room, “gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground, / Sinking from thought to thought” (his own self-caricature from “The Dunciad”) while writing mostly satiric verse and, just occasionally, a love poem. “On a Certain Lady at Court” begins with a backhanded compliment:

I know a thing that ‘s most uncommon;

(Envy, be silent and attend!)

I know a reasonable Woman,

Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.

Not warped by Passion, awed by Rumour…

Then concludes by saying that this woman has one “fault”: “When all the World conspires to praise her, / The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.” This form of compliment, though it presages Rodgers’ and Hart’s popular “The Lady Is A Tramp,” is just too witty for the woman in the club. Not to say she doesn’t get the wit, but to say it’s just too witty, too circumlocutory, whereas Drake gets straight to business: “These girls ain’t got nothin’ on you. / Say, baby, I had to mention / that if you were a star you’d be the one I’m searching for.”

Also in the 18th century, we find Robert Burns who lit up Scotland with not only sexy verse (sometimes downright pornographic) but scandal, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of his own continually multiplying passions. He gave the world

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June.

Oh my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly played in tune.

He promises to love her “Till a’ the seas gang dry … and the rocks melt wi’ the sun” and finally refers to her as “my only Luve,” but Burns loved love itself more than the woman to whom this poem is addressed, as Robert Crawford’s astute biography, The Bard, amply illustrates, should the woman in the club take time to check it out from a library and read it. Burns had numerous short affairs throughout his life, frequently paid for sex, and died in despair. A true gangsta.

A century before Pope and Burns (now we’re in the 1600s), the Metaphysical and Cavalier schools produced poems even more wit-driven—clever constructions that, like origami boats, are fun to unfold. They’re also provocative and extremely sexual. John Donne’s “The Flea,” which includes in its first stanza the memorable line “It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (hey now!) proceeds to craft an argument that the woman addressed should also be the woman undressed—an argument based in clever logic.

While many readers revel in Donne’s wit, and cherish his later religious verse, too, there’s no way his love poetry is not overconceived for today’s audience. The woman in the club won’t entertain a contrived, if humorous, argument. She’s busy laughing with her girlfriends and checking her iPhone.

So what about Robert Herrick? Same century, a bit more direct, he liked to describe clothes and appearances, attempted to define beauty, but wrote nary a poem directed toward a singular maid. There’s no sense of uniqueness of one person, one beloved, in either Herrick or Donne. They were mesmerized by their own inescapable logic.

It’s tempting to spend some time discussing the medieval Italian poets Petrarch and Dante who, a few centuries earlier, had written of their loves Laura and Beatrice. But these were women who served as muses only. The great Italian poets’ love, about which they sang and sang and sang, was unrequited. So they, like others mentioned here, wrote about love only, love’s effect, love’s halo, its glow—not about a singular other, a beloved, the way Drake does.

Get dressed, says Drake, speaking with authority to the woman he desires:

Put those [cussword] heels on and work it girl.

Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.

Put that [cussword] dress on and work it kind of vicious

like somebody’s taking pictures.

Shut it down, down, down,

you would shut it down, down, down

you be the baddest girl around, round, round,

and they notice, they notice.

You would shut it down, down, down.

Shut what down, though? This complex idiom connotes both taking complete control—as of a social situation, perhaps in a club or at a party—and giving complete satisfaction in a physical sense. Drake is saying that this amazing woman, should she get dressed and go out on the town, would not only silence her would-be competition (to borrow a rap-world idiom, “all them other hoes”) but deliver, to her mate, in this case Drake himself, the most compelling sort of physical intimacy possible between two humans. Drake is positing authentic spiritual and physical epiphany.

The romantic poets imagined this sort of experience in very different terms, alone in nature or in the darkling plains of their own souls. The 17th and 18th century poets, so full of ahems and asides, so blessed with their own rhetoric, threw darts in love’s outer rings. Maybe Burns nailed it, but he also badly failed it. Drake, though, hits the bulls-eye, and his song is precisely what the young woman at the club wants to—needs to, according to the design of her imago dei—hear. Conclusion: Drake’s poetry is indeed among the dopest.

It is not the dopest, however. There is one poet in history whose conception of love and ability to authoritatively address his lover exceed Drake’s—King Solomon. “The Song of Solomon” proceeds in much the same way as “Shut It Down,” almost point for point, but adds even more energy to the mix. Solomon compares his beloved to other hoes: “as a lily among brambles, / So is my love among the young women.” She, he imagines (the poem is structured as a dialog), sees him in a crowd “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest … distinguished among ten thousand.”

Solomon admires his beloved’s clothes, jewelry, perfume—her hair, eyes, lips, neck, torso, everything. She, too, desires him physically: “While the king was on his couch, / my nard gave forth its fragrance. / My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / that lies between my breasts.” Loving him exhausts her to the point that she requests, “Sustain me with raisins; / refresh me with apples, / for I am sick with love” (so many double meanings here). She sees him as food, and she’s hungry for him. “His mouth is most sweet” she says. She “goes down to the nut orchard / to look at the blossoms of the valley” and becomes disoriented with desire. This language is both sexual and symbolic, plainspoken and complex.

From Solomon’s point of view, his beloved is “My dove, my perfect one, the only one … The young women saw her and called her blessed.” In short, she shuts it down. As a result, he wants to get with her. She responds in the affirmative, suggesting they “break out of this fake-[cussword] party” (to borrow a line from another rapper, Kanye West) and “go out early to the vineyards / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. / There I will give you my love.” Drake concludes his song along similar lines: “Take those [cussword] heels off, it’s worth it girl; / nothing is what I can picture you in, / so take that [cussword] dress off, I swear you won’t forget me. / You’ll be happy that you let me lay you down, down, down … / you still the baddest girl around, round, round.”

Solomon and Drake are not unique in their descriptions of how attraction becomes desire, desire becomes love, and love blossoms into euphoria. But they are doper than most in their positioning of the beloved as the one who, in both her finery and beauty, outshines all the others and shuts down the party. From now on, imply both poets, it’s just me and you. You are the one. It’s a message of hope and, as the rest of the Bible teaches, ultimate healing. The image of God in us needs total love and total satisfaction and will settle for no less. If we seek other loves, stopgaps, placeholders, we rain down destruction on ourselves.

For those of us of the Christian faith, what makes God’s love unique is that we believe he regards the Church as his bride, the exclusive, despite our earthly whoring. Drake reflects this in another song, “Practice,” in which he says “I taste pain and regret, / In your sweat /
You’ve been waiting for me, / I can tell that you been practicing
All those other men were practice, they were practice / for me, for me, for me, for me.”

As full of sorrow as these lyrics are, they suggest the message of Hosea, in which God summons his beloved Israel from its worship of idols—false gods in place of the real one. “I will make you lie down in safety,” he says, forgiving them and assuming his position as only lover once again. This, too, might be a message the young woman at the club needs to hear, even as does the rest of humanity. Despite our falling so far short of the perfect lover for whom we were created, by His mercy, we’re still “the baddest girl around.”

I suspect English majors will quibble with the preceding argument as follows: “Drake is a rapper. His ‘poems,’ if you want to call them that, are verbally thin and embarrassingly direct. They lack artfulness. Maybe they’re entertaining, even somewhat moving, when accompanied by music, but Drake is no Rilke. And Drake is no Pope or Burns, crikey!” To which I will reply, you are correct. Drake might not find a place in a future edition of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, but he still has something that many English and American poets lack: cojones.

A second objection might be: “Drake, forreal? He’s not a one-woman man in real life!” And again, perhaps that’s right, but he has something else poets lack: charm. He writes, he says in a recent MTV interview, “just to make women feel special”—necessary, affirmed, wanted. He tells them, it’s okay to dress up and try to be noticed. Drake is as charming as Solomon, whose wives, it is said, numbered in the hundreds. We can appreciate that Drake, like Solomon and—fine, whatever—Burns before him, writes poems that celebrate “the one”—the perfect beloved whose love, requited, outshines all else. We should still be allowed to believe in that.

The Grafted Willow:
My Poetry Family Tree

Most poets can tell you who their poetic grandparents, cousins, brothers, and sisters are – maybe not every single poet who preceded them, but those whose work or style transformed or contributed significantly to their own voice as a poet, even if it was just with one poem. April is National Poetry Month in the United States, which makes it a fine time for me to consider my own poetic ancestors.

I realize my growth story as a poet isn’t uncommon. My mom diligently and passionately read to both my older brother, David, and me when we were children. She read The Swiss Family Robinson, the Bible, Sesame Street books, her own nursing books; you name it, and she either read it to us or encouraged us to read it ourselves.

The Psalms always stuck to my ribs. The Psalmists’ passion and range of emotion, not to mention their amazing imagery, comparisons, and figurative language, ignited me. I wanted the emotional freedom I saw available within those poems.

I started seriously writing poetry when I was fifteen, after an incident with my older brother. Later in high school, as I began reading more poetry on my own, I clung to poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. Common enough figures in most high school English classes, they were also the poets to whom I returned, for various reasons. From Poe, I learned to cultivate an ear to hear the music which sprung from within words in a way I’d never encountered before. His Gothic subject matter was an added bonus for an already-somber kid.

Hughes, Sexton, and Whitman attracted me mostly for their subject matter: each of them wrote as a sort of outcast, or outside observer, who desperately admired the beauty they saw in the tragic world and within themselves. Hughes also played jazz with his simple diction and syntax, a musical style I hadn’t heard before. Sexton sang sad songs yearning for peace, God, and reconciliation with herself. I particularly dug her Transformations – fairy tales acknowledging the terror of being a wife and mother. And Whitman – he wanted it all, and I admit, he wooed me, too, with his lusty, inviting lines that spooled along forever.

But in high school, I also read a lot about the Vietnam War. I’d been molested by two different guys at two different times in my life, and so I shared some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading poetry from Vietnam Vets in the anthologies, Unaccustomed Mercy and Winning Hearts and Minds, and other factors, enabled me to deal with my own issues and inability, and yes, initial unwillingness, to express myself vocally. I was also struggling with reconciling my religious beliefs and my desires and feelings. So poetry was for me, as it is for so many others, a much-needed outlet. But thankfully, I didn’t stay in the expunging stage of writing.

A good family friend, Dr. Sarah Bell, first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me in her office in Athens, Georgia. I’d graduated from high school and was planning on attending the University of Georgia. I’d passed over T.S. Eliot before, but wow, this was amazing-the sounds, the imagery, and the loneliness mixed in with sadness, wistfulness, and mystery; holy crap, how cool! I guess I got hit with Eliot at the right time, and maybe Sarah knew enough to see when the time was prime.

After Eliot, I started revising more – or rather, I had a slightly firmer grasp on the function and necessity, the power, of revision. And Sarah’s constructive criticism helped, too. I still kept at the Vietnam Veteran poets, and Sexton, Hughes, and King David. I continued writing consistently, too.

Fast forward to my last couple of undergrad years, now at the University of Southern Mississippi, studying under the guidance of Angela Ball and Dave Berry (one of the vet poets I’d idolized). Ball introduced me to James Wright and Frankie O (Frank O’Hara), while Berry encouraged his workshop students to laugh a little, to make jokey poems with serious punches. I had a lot of time to fail in my writing, to wriggle in various skins, most of them not my own. Wright taught me how to use a seemingly-simple image, and to whittle that image down through the process of the poem, to get to the heart of what I wanted to understand through images. Frankie O taught me to say it plainly, but that even saying it plainly can be complicated and fun. “It’s okay to be yourself,” he seemed to say. “If you like Cherry Coke, throw a Cherry Coke in there.”

At USM, in my own research, I also began focusing on contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. I admired the work of Gary Hotham, Stanford Forrester, and ai li, but I also looked back at older masters including Bashō and Issa, and the contemporary Yamaguchi Seishi. Haiku and senryu taught me the value of concision, of dynamite created when you pack words tightly.

Then, I moved away to the Ph.D. program at Texas Tech. I’d somehow gotten into this place poetically where I felt like I had to be smart because I had studied contemporary graduate school poems, and I included little of myself but my brain in the poems. One of my fellow poets, Aaron Rudolph, suggested that I put more of myself into my work, that I take those emotional risks which effective poems take.

So I did. My poems grew surprisingly more tasty, and less like sawdust. As an added bonus, an anthology of prose poetry, No Boundaries, fell into my lap. After researching the genre, I kept returning to Charles Baudelaire, Russell Edson, and Mary Koncel. I laughed at how Baudelaire’s flaneur treated people like crap and then, in the very next sentence, talked about how a beautiful cloud shone. The contrasting tones tripped me out. Meanwhile, Edson and Koncel challenged me to work in a magical realism with emotional significance, spiritual possibility, and interesting props.

Since Tech, I’ve incorporated prose poetry into my set of skills and have moved on. I’ve written, over the last five years, a book of poetic responses to others’ poems, in both verse and prose poetry.

I can’t say where I’m going poetically, and I’m not worried about it at all. I like where I am, but I don’t plan on staying here. Yet what does this mean for you? What do I want you to get out of my story?

I hope it inspires you to consider your own story, to think critically about how those who have worked in your own discipline before you have affected you, and what you’ve really learned from them. I hope to pass along these poets’ lives and works in the spirit of giving, with the chance that they might contribute to your own life and work. Finally, I hope this lights a flame of desire within you to create, to make the next poem, next song, next quilt, which future artists can warm their hearts and hands by.

Doctor Atomic or: How Opera Learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Few productions this season at the Metropolitan Opera are receiving the kind of attention and publicity that the new production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic has. The Met’s innovative general manager, Peter Gelb, has given his full support to the production, including the significant addition of the first permanent sound system in the Met theater to play the recorded sounds (musique concrete) that are part of Adams’ musical score.

Adams composed Doctor Atomic at the request of then general director of the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg, who wanted an American version of the Faust legend and thought that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story would be a good fit. The opera premiered in 2005 in San Francisco, and has since been performed in Amsterdam and Chicago, before the new production was created this year for the Met, an unusual turn for an opera this young. The strong cast is headed by an excellent Gerald Finley, who premiered the role of Oppenheimer and has sung it in every production since then. This, combined with the innovative design crew of director Penny Woolcock (directing her first stage opera after a career in film) and stage designer, Julian Crouch (known for his theatrical work), has generated great excitement and some controversy in the opera world about the new production. I came to the performance with every desire that it succeed and, while I found it an exciting and thought-provoking night of theater, in the end I felt it disappointed as opera. I found myself wondering if it would make a better symphonic choral piece, or as one friend suggested, an oratorio, although the theatrical possibilities seem to demand a dramatic setting. While there is much that is praise-worthy about the production, and it is definitely worth seeing, I do not believe it ultimately succeeds as an opera.

Adams says he believes that in order to be relevant, contemporary opera must address the issues of our lives. His past operas such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro) have pointedly addressed contemporary topics, and Doctor Atomic is no exception. It focuses on the final twelve hours before the testing of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site in Los Alamos, NM, but also attempts to tell the story of the scientists and soldiers who built the bomb. The libretto for Doctor Atomic is unique in that it was compiled by Peter Sellars from a variety of found sources. Adams describes the process in an article for NewMusicBox:

The libretto to Doctor Atomic . . . contains everything from interview transcripts with physicists and other people involved in the creation of the bomb to declassified government documents, memoirs by Edward Teller and General Groves, and even poetry by Baudelaire, John Donne, and from the Bhagavad Gita. Oppenheimer was an immensely literate scientist, and he held poetry, especially these works, dear to his heart. In fact, in the agonizingly tense hours leading up to the Trinity test shot, while other scientists relaxed by playing poker and making a betting pool on the bomb’s yield, Oppenheimer went off by himself, took out a copy of Baudelaire poetry and tried to calm himself by reading a few stanzas. (No wonder the FBI found him a deeply suspect individual!)

During a panel discussion on the making of Doctor Atomic (with John Adams, Peter Gelb, Penny Woolcock, and Julian Crouch), it was obvious that all of those involved in the making of the opera had become fascinated with the characters and stories that intersected in the creation of the atomic bomb. From the disciplined military general Leslie Groves tasked to oversee the wide variety of “crackpot” scientists assembled to invent the bomb, to the conflicted character of Kitty Oppenheimer, a scientist in her own right who was frustrated by her “faculty wife” position in Los Alamos, to the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, a highly intelligent scientist with wide literary and aesthetic interests who was both inspired by and conflicted about the making of the bomb, the people and history of this time period are clearly a rich mine of creative inspiration. The concept of a libretto composed of these peoples’ documents and recorded conversations, combined with poetry that influenced them, seemed like a compelling and innovative way to set this contemporary story.

Unfortunately, the libretto turns out to be the greatest flaw in Doctor Atomic. I came away from the performance feeling that I had seen very little in the way of character development or story, and had I not heard the panel discussion, would have understood almost nothing about who any of these people were or what drove them. The effect of hearing snippets of telegrams and classified reports, along with official letters, excerpts from books on atomic energy combined with lengthy poems (some of which related more directly to the topic at hand than others), left me feeling I had heard a rather disjointed and vague documentary, rather than watched real characters come alive on a stage. Without a clearer story line or some insight into the personal reflections of the characters (something a standard opera libretto is well able to do), I was left feeling that the people on stage were mere ciphers, acting as the mouthpiece for a specific perspective on the history of the bomb.

Points of Entry
‚Ä¢ Check out the Metropolitan Opera’s special “minisite” for Doctor Atomic, including features, video, historical background, event listings, and a rehearsal blog.
• There are several upcoming performances of Doctor Atomic at the Met. See dates and times and purchase tickets on their website.
• Not in New York? Select movie theaters around the world will be showing uDoctor Atomic in HD on November 8 at 1:00pm ET.

Kitty Oppenheimer’s character was one of the best examples of this problem. While she was, by all reports, a fascinating and intelligent woman who both encouraged her husband’s success in building the bomb and yet was frustrated by her narrow role at Los Alamos, in the opera she is given only long, rambling settings of poetry (mostly of Muriel Rukeyser) that depict her as some sort of archetypal “eternal feminine,” serving only as a moral reminder of the consequences of the bomb. She is joined in several of her scenes by Pasqualita, a fictional Native American maid who represents the real population of Tewa Pueblo Indians who were trucked in every day to do the menial work at Los Alamos. Pasqualita also functions mainly as a stereotype – the pagan earth mother.

In the panel discussion, Woolcock discussed how intrigued she was by the combination of the differing worldviews of the three groups working together at Los Alamos. One of the effective ways she portrayed their differences was in designing different walks for the different characters, based on descriptions from the time. The Tewa people all move very slowly, in marked contrast to the scientists and soldiers who tend to rush about. The scientists lead with their heads, while the soldiers lead with their chests. Much less effective was one of the scenes of nervous anticipation before the bomb’s first test explosion where the Tewa were arrayed across the top of the set wearing animal headdresses and stern expressions. Below them, the chattering groups of scientists make wagers on the energy load of the bomb explosion and worry about safety concerns. While there are interesting comparisons to be made between these diverse groups of people and their varying worldviews, the directing, musical score and libretto rarely made these distinctions in human and nuanced ways, more often lapsing into cliché.

But there is another problem. An opera libretto is the bones upon which the meaning, found in the music and the sung voice, must be hung. The strange effect of this is that more banal librettos can actually make better operas, while lines of erudite poetry can fail to come alive when set to music. One reason for this is that poetry is written to be read and re-read, not set in a musical tempo in which the words flash by more quickly than they can be comprehended and savored. Secondly, some of the greatest lyrical poetry already contains so much music in the words, that to add sung music in an attempt to transcend it succeeds only in diluting its power. A good example of this can be found in the introduction to Donald Jay Grout’s A Short History of Opera, where he quotes this passage from Shakespeare:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Grout compares it to a selection from Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas:

When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast. Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

As Grout says of the passage from The Tempest, “it would require a composer of genius equal to Shakespeare’s to add music to such lines as these.” The second selection, while lesser poetry, serves as the perfect bones to one of the most heart-rending arias in operatic history. To be a good libretto, the words need to point to an emotional expression that only music can fully express.

Unfortunately, many of the Baudelaire and Rukeyser poems in the Doctor Atomic libretto function better as poetry than libretto, leaving the audience confused by long soliloquies that are hard to follow and convey little clear emotion, especially when they are not supported by a story line or the personal thoughts of the characters speaking them. Strangely enough, however, the setting of the John Donne poem, Batter my heart, three-person’d God, an aria for Oppenheimer that ends the first act, is one of the more effective and beautiful parts of the opera. Donne would appear to be a poet, like Shakespeare, whose words are so full of meaning and expression that it is hard to imagine music being an effective addition to them. In this case however, this particular poem being sung by Oppenheimer at this particular point in the story (as he contemplates the finished yet untested bomb he has built), adds a weight of personal meaning that the music is well-suited here to support and elucidate. This poem was one of Oppenheimer’s favorite poems (he said later that the bomb test site Trinity was named for it), and Adams sees it as Oppenheimer’s true prayer that God batter him, so that those divided parts of himself that see both the bomb’s beauty and its destruction could be made whole again. Gerald Finley masterfully portrays Oppenheimer’s soul-searching in this aria.

Other parts of the libretto see strong uses of some poetic fragments, such as the chorus’ lines from the Bhagavad Gita in response to the sight of the 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.

The use of recorded sounds (musique concrete), in opera is still relatively unusual and controversial in some circles. Adams remains very committed to the use of recorded sound in his composition, since he believes that modern composers should be using the sound-making tools of the day as instruments, even as composers of the past adapted their music to newly invented instruments. I can understand his desire to have metallic and mechanical sounds present in his portrayal of the building of the atomic bomb, but I was disappointed by the way this sound seemed to stand outside the musical score, rather than being woven into it in a way that would truly recognize it as another musical instrument. Both of the opera’s two acts begin with an extended period of recorded sounds meant to set the stage by evoking both the era and the mood of the Los Alamos site. Strangely, each of these was a mish-mash of vague, overlapping sounds that seemed poorly recorded and oddly combined. I’ve heard better sound design in other theater shows, and the extended sequences left me longing for the presence and energy of the orchestral sound, which, when it entered, effectively left the recorded sound behind. Oddly enough, I did not notice much other musique concrete in the rest of the score, except for the end of the opera, where it is used very effectively in the countdown to the bomb explosion. The drawn-out final countdown and the quiet aftermath of the explosion are the most powerful moments in the opera and are worth attending the opera to hear and feel. It is here that Adams’ vision of using contemporary themes and modern technology to make opera relevant is most clearly realized.

A more controversial use of technology in Adams’ operas is that he requires that the singers be lightly miked, because he says that “this allows them to sing more effortlessly and it also makes the text intelligible.” This is highly controversial in opera because the wonderful resonance of the human voice cannot be fully captured by a microphone, and historically, miking voices has not produced effortless singing as much as it has bad singing technique. While some opera singers may bellow (a critique of Adams’), good technique allows a singer to fill a hall over the sound of an orchestra without requiring obvious effort. Thankfully there was no obvious sound of the singers’ voices coming through the speakers at the Met, but I did notice that an over-emphasis on pronunciation of words seemed to be interfering with the tonal quality of the singing at times. This seemed most noticeable with Sasha Cooke, who nonetheless sang a strong and lovely performance of Kitty Oppenheimer.

The preeminence of words, above the music and the voices, causes many of the problems in Doctor Atomic. I also came away from this performance having reaffirmed that I do not come to the opera to be told how to think about something, I come to the opera to have people and history come alive for me. There were scenes in Doctor Atomic where this happened in breathtaking ways, but they left me wishing the rest of the opera had risen to this standard.