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Arts feature

Revealing the physicist’s soul

Henrietta Bredin talks to the baritone Gerald Finley about how he portrays ‘the destroyer of worlds’

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

Henrietta Bredin talks to the baritone Gerald Finley about how he portrays ‘the destroyer of worlds’

At precisely 5.30 a.m. on Monday 16 July 1945 the world entered the nuclear age. The first atomic bomb exploded in a searing flash of light and a vast mushroom cloud unfurled in the skies above New Mexico. ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,’ thought Robert J. Oppenheimer, the physicist who had masterminded its development.

It was typical of the man and the deep contradictions within his nature that these lines from the Bhagavad Gita should have come to mind, and that he should have named the project the Trinity Test in response to poetry by John Donne. Sixty years later, composer John Adams and librettist/director Peter Sellars created an opera around this subject, Doctor Atomic. In the title role in San Francisco in 2005, and in every performance since, was baritone Gerald Finley. He is now about to bring it to the stage of the London Coliseum, in a new production directed by Penny Woolcock, shared with the Met in New York.


Finley must feel a strong sense of ownership about this role. ‘I hope I’m not greedy with it but I certainly do feel extremely close to this opera. I love all aspects of it — the scientific argument, the moral arguments, the historical and political elements. The men who worked on that project were vulnerable, fallible human beings, and so close to us in time. And of course the repercussions of what they did are still with us now. I find myself feeling strangely protective of Oppenheimer. Before the first production I did a lot of research and reading, trying to find a way into his personality. He had an intensely poetic sensibility, a rigorously disciplined and incisive intellect, astonishing charm and an ability to be devastatingly cruel and cutting, all mixed up together. When we were rehearsing at the Met, a chorus member came up to me after the first rehearsal and said, “You sing this so well but I just hate Oppenheimer.” And I said, “Give it a few weeks. You’ll find it’s a little more complicated than just love or hate.”’

The opera stops at the moment of the test explosion so the focus is clearly on the Oppenheimer of Los Alamos and his work there. ‘Yes. As soon as he took on that job he was implicated. There was no redemption after that. I think he was absolutely aware of all the conditions and, in playing him, I have to find out what made him accept it, knowing that it was a poisoned chalice. He knew that he was working on something with an unimaginable capacity for destruction but I think that, as a physicist, he realised that, on his tiny path through such enormity, he could at least be influential in bringing it about in controlled, supervised conditions. He faced terrible loneliness and isolation, he was constantly searching for spiritual solace, which I think is perfectly expressed by the use of the John Donne sonnet, “Batter my heart”, but I believe he tasted bitterness all the way.’

With Frost/Nixon currently in cinemas, David Hare in the vanguard of writing plays featuring living political figures, and of course John Adams’s close engagement with recent history in his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the question must arise of how closely to attempt a realistic physical impersonation. ‘It’s a huge responsibility as one doesn’t want to betray the memory or legacy of the real person. I don’t resemble Oppenheimer physically but I try to relay some of his essential energy. There are little details that help, like his incessant smoking, always wearing a suit. But the key to it all is the music; that’s what takes it into another dimension, and reveals what I consider to be the soul.’

In constructing the libretto for Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars drew on original sources — US government documents, correspondence between scientists, officials and military personnel involved in the project. Interwoven with this are lines from the Bhagavad Gita and poetry by Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and John Donne. Oppenheimer’s inner life is revealed by these means and, as Finley says, by the music. What he cannot say about himself is that his own exceptionally beautiful and supple, darkly lyrical voice contributes substantially to the audience’s ability to sympathise with the character he portrays.

Winding back to when the opera was first performed, was this a difficult piece to learn? ‘It was extremely hard. The text is very dense and it’s rhythmically incredibly complex. But one of the great beauties of having by now sung it so often is that I have, I hope, dealt with the sheer difficulties of execution. All that part of it has sort of become part of a well-furnished room. I can relax to a certain extent, while people, other singers, come into that room and engage with all the colours and layers and complexities of the piece.’

The prose sections of the text are where much essential detail and narrative reside. ‘There are a lot of historic and technical references and it’s important to get those across. I know that John Adams was excited by that. He loved the challenge of setting words like “icosahedron”, “neutron chain reaction” and “plutonium core”. It’s vital that, onstage, we are plausible as characters and use the language properly. At the first performance the opening chorus had to be modified because physicists who came to the dress rehearsal pointed out that what they were singing wasn’t strictly correct.’

Finley may be immersed in his role but he is impressively capable of taking a step back and assessing the public’s response to the opera. ‘There have been criticisms that it’s too long and that the second half becomes over meditative, dwelling on people’s inner turmoils. I agree that in the first half the audience can be swept along by the documentary swiftness of the pacing then cast loose into a sort of slow-motion freefall in the second half, but I think that allows them to absorb what’s happened, to recognise that this is still a major part of all of our lives.

‘Any public performance is a risk. It’s a big commitment for anyone to make the effort to attend live theatre at all, to give up other, more easily accessible ways to entertain themselves. And the reactions have ranged from one extreme to the other. When my mother went to one of the live cinema screenings she said that a man came up to her afterwards and said that he was so moved and overwhelmed he could hardly speak, and that she then heard someone else saying, “Well, that was the worst three hours I’ve ever spent.” I accept both responses although, obviously, I hope people will be provoked and engaged by what we’re doing. The main thing is that they have made a decision to come and share that time with us. What I want people to know is how exciting this opera is. It’s controversial, it has an amazing story, and there is music that makes you want to get up and dance, music that shakes your bones and music that will flow through your dreams.’

Doctor Atomic opens at English National Opera on 25 February; tickets: 0871 911 0200.Gerald Finley has been shortlisted for a BBC Music Magazine Award for Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (Wigmore Hall Live); visit www.bbcmusicmagazine.com/awards.


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