Music

THE NEW ‘BARIHUNK’

A new opera about the atomic bomb has made Gerald Finley the hottest baritone on stage

PAUL WELLS October 17 2005
Music

THE NEW ‘BARIHUNK’

A new opera about the atomic bomb has made Gerald Finley the hottest baritone on stage

PAUL WELLS October 17 2005

THE NEW ‘BARIHUNK’

A new opera about the atomic bomb has made Gerald Finley the hottest baritone on stage

PAUL WELLS

Music

WHEN THE CURTAIN rises on Act II of Doctor Atomic, the new John Adams opera playing at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco (until Oct. 22), the audience sees an atomic bomb—the first ever, on the eve of its detonation in the New Mexico desertsuspended about eight feet over a baby’s crib. As metaphors go, this one is as subtle as a brick. The Bomb—The Menace That Hangs Over All Our Children. Oh, I get it. But then something surprising and annoying and fascinating happens, one of many surprising and annoying and fascinating things about this nuclear-age opera: the crib simply stays there,

with the bomb hanging over it, for almost the entire second act. Bits of entirely unrelated business happen around the bombcradle centrepiece. Characters sing arias in blissful ignorance of the suspended menace. But the threat remains.

Which, Gerald Finley reminded me the day after I saw Doctor Atomic, is pretty much what life has been like for all of us since the first atomic blast. Finley is the singer who plays J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, which designed the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is the star of Doctor Atomic. Its composer, John Adams, could lay a fair claim to being the most prominent classical composer alive, so the 45-year-old Finley’s already bustling international career kicked up a notch last week when he became the most talked-about baritone in opera. And he says that when he was a kid in Ottawa in the 1970s, the peril of the atom was a subject of constant preoccupation.

“My interpretation of growing up in Canada was always that we were in the middle,” recalls the strapping, Montreal-born singer, who moved to the capital when he was 8 and his dad landed a job in the civil service. The air-raid sirens would go off, and young Gerry Finley would start to consider the unpleasant side effects of life between the Americans and the Soviets. “You know,” he remembers telling himself, “it’s going to miss and they’re gonna hit Sudbury. Or they’re gonna say, ‘Okay, it’s North Dakota!’ —and Winnipeg is gonna get it.”

So Finley is hardly unfamiliar with the sense of looming menace that hovers over Doctor A tomic, which counts down the last days before the first successful nuclear weapons test and ends—in a manner that has left the critics sharply divided over its effectiveness— with that first terrifying blast. Yet Finley was “very hesitant” about taking on the role of Oppenheimer, the tortured, chain-smoking genius. “He’s iconic—mythological to a certain extent. I thought, well, first of all I’m Canadian. I don’t come from Jewish stock. I’ve got a very strong Scottish-Saxon stock to me—there was no way I could get the thinness or the wiriness of him. But I thought, however, this guy’s dealing with an amazingly challeng-

ing set of circumstances. Which makes the investigation of the character—dealing with power, potential failure, his sense of his own brilliance and arrogance and how can he control that—so fascinating.”

Doctor Atomic brings together three of the most prominent figures in modem opera. A composer, a director-librettist and a baritone. Two brash iconoclasts and one softspoken team player. (Guess which one’s the Canadian.)

Adams rose to prominence in the late 1970s as a member, with Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, of composing’s socalled minimalist school. Their music, a rebellion against the anarchy of mid-century modernism, was repetitive, highly rhythmic and often unapologetically tuneful. Too obsessive and eggheaded for mass consumption, but refreshingly accessible for art-house crowds who stumbled across it.

Adams’s first opera, 1987’s Nixon in China, was solidly in the minimalist mold. It was also his first major collaboration with Peter Sellars, an impish director with a fright-wig shock of upswept hair. Their collaborations since then have shared the same concern with high politics that made Nixon in China such a bracing novelty. The Death ofKling-

hoffer, their 1991 meditation on the Achille Lauro hijacking, drew harsh criticism from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

WHEN he was a kid in Ottawa in the 1970s, the peril of the atom was a subject of constant preoccupation

Adams and Sellars have collaborated on smaller-scale projects since The Death of Klinghoffer, but Doctor Atomic marks their return to opera. It also confirms the radical transformation of Adams’s composition over the past decade from the cheerful symmetry of minimalism to something darker, more complex, ambiguous and personal. Doctor Atomic is a thorny stew of fortissimo drums, darting trumpets, electronic noise and mournful low strings. At times it barely makes sense. At times it’s shockingly lyrical.

Sellars’ libretto (the pair’s long-time librettist, Alice Goodman, bailed early in the

planning stages for Doctor Atomic) is a foundlyric pastiche of prose from technical instruction manuals, memoirs of Manhattan Project participants, and literature that was dear to the well-read Oppenheimer. In the first act, as the scientists debate the morality of their project, the lyrics are fussily technical (“The cowpuncher committee has a mandate to ‘ride herd’ on the implosion problem,” one manages to sing). In the second act, when there is nothing left to do but wait, dramatic momentum slows to a dead stop and the libretto wafts away into metaphor and reverie.

In the opera’s sweetest romantic moment, Oppenheimer and his wife quote Baudelaire to each other in bed. In its dramatic highlight, Oppenheimer has a crisis of conscience in the New Mexico desert, a moral dilemma Adams portrays with a gorgeous setting of the John Donne poem “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.”

The critic for the Times of London, who crossed the Atlantic to attend the Doctor Atomic premier, called Finley’s star turn in the Donne poem “astonishingly beautiful, profound and devastating.” But then, that’s the kind of year the baritone has been having. One New York City opera blog—there are such things—called Finley opera’s “ ‘It’ Boy of Summer 2005” and referred to the “barihunk” photo spread that graced the pages of Opera News.

It boy? Barihunk? Finley winces at the labels in what can only be called a charmingly barihunky manner. “Ohhh-kay,” he shrugs. “Publicity breeds publicity. Obviously, being involved in Atomic has raised my profile. I’d like to think that’s not the only thing that has. My Don Giovanni at the Met was also a personal, enjoyable success.”

Sadly, Canada won’t see much of Finley for the next while. Based in England with his wife and two children, he’s booked well into the future at the world’s great opera houses. Canadian companies have expressed interest, but they don’t have the means to plan far enough ahead to catch someone as in-demand. True to his roots, the singer is trying to keep level-headed about it all. “Hopefully people are enjoying what I do,” he says. “And the more places I do it, there are going to be people who go, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread’—and there’ll be people thinking, ‘What the heck do people think is great about this guy?’”