17 May 2008

Dr. Atomic

This morning on KSOR Ashland, the "Classics and News Service" of Jefferson Public Radio broadcast the Lyric Opera of Chicago performing Doctor Atomic by John Coolidge Adams. This is a contemporary English-language opera by a fellow who writes stuff about Nixon, Leon Klinghoffer and El Niño. Not your ordinary musical material, and not your ordinary music. It is too hot to venture outdoors today (100 ºF in the shade), and a couple of hours lying about and listening to weird opera music seemed like the perfect thing to do. It is hard to imagine lumping this stuff in with something like Verdi, but the power, dramatic intensity, and pathos that operatic music has in abundance came through despite the lack of traditional forms like arias or even melodies. It was a long, continuous piece, with lots of mood shifts and variation. The story of Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and The Bomb, the subject of the opera, is certainly mythic in scope, and the ambitious nature of the work is a bit overwhelming. Dr. Oppenheimer was the 20th century's Prometheus, marshaling the brains needed to bring the fundamental energy of the universe out of the atom and into the hands of men. For better or worse, he shaped the modern world. He can count the explosion of dystopic and apocalyptic works of speculative fiction among his god-children, and I will venture to say the cynical and fatalistic elements of noir are among his legacies as well. The Bomb was in no way a one-man show, but this man's name will be forever linked with it. Needless to say such a musical diversion got TPP thinking deep and dark thoughts about humankind and the future. Who needs that on a Saturday afternoon? Good thing there is a counterpoint to Mr. Adams and his brooding music: Mr. Larry Todd and his outrageous comic, Dr. Atomic. This fellow is a mad scientist sort, spreading the magic of marijuana, the craze of cannabis, the highs of hashish with the help of his robot assistant and Billy Kropotkin, the hippie-next-door. I am the proud possessor of issues 1, 2, 4 and 5. They are from Last Gasp Eco-Funnies of Berkeley, California. Number One is from 1972! That seems to fit--Last Gasp. Here's hoping the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the sixty-plus years since Trinity is NOT humanity's "last gasp."

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