Obama, Rhetoric and the American Opera – Justin Kownacki

Last weekend, I attended the PSO's performance of excerpts from John Adams' opera "Nixon in China," followed by his symphonic adaptation of another opera — also his own — "Doctor Atomic."  Although I enjoyed the entire performance, I found myself far more satisfied by the symphony than the opera.  I chalk this up to a potentially simplistic but nonetheless legitimate artistic stumbling block: the English language.

Simply put, I'm not yet convinced that English — and, specifically, American — translates gracefully to the structure required of an opera's dialogue.  American English follows a far different rhythm (and relies on far fewer syllables) than the European languages in which most operas I'm familiar with have been written.  Thus, the American language must be shoehorned into the format of an opera, which then has the unintended consequence of making profound statements seem comedic and dramatic moments contrived, due simply to the arrangement and delivery of the syllables.

Conversely, the symphony drawn from "Doctor Atomic" is free to rely solely upon the music to convey the emotion of the story — in this case, the tortured conscience of atomic bomb craftsman Dr. Robert Oppenheimer.  Adams was on hand to explain how he translated the words of his opera into music, and even showed a film clip of the opera's (masterfully sung) denoument.  And yet, when compared to the eloquence of the instrumental variation, I have to say that Adams did himself no disservice by transposing his lyrics into the mouth of a trumpet.

So what does this mean for the American language?  Is it unable to achieve the lofty emotional highs of the classic romantic languages, or of music?  I think anyone who witnessed Barack Obama's inaugural address today would disagree with that suggestion.  Words, like instruments, are simply tools in the hands (and mouths) of the player or the speaker; it's the human being delivering those sounds to our ears who's charged with the responsibility of conveying the meaning and emotion of the moment.  (This is the same reason I wonder how cultures with tonal languages convey irony, when every fluctuation in one's speech creates not a distinction of intent but a completely new word or phrase.)

Another issue fueling my uncertainty about Adams' work may stem from the personae involved.  Richard Nixon was no Barack Obama, either emblematically or linguistically, and while "Nixon in China" may take a complicated look back at a politically-charged epoch in world history, it still asks that the audience consider Nixon as a hero (or villain) worthy of operatic enshrinement, with his "guy-next-door" vocabulary and all.  In fact, if the entire purpose of Adams' exercise is to showcase the absurdity of such a concept, then "Nixon in China" succeeds implicitly.

Still, how long before we're asked to consider George W. Bush a folk hero worthy of lyric immortality?  Or Barack Obama, for that matter?  While building a bomb capable of obliterating humanity is an action whose inherent drama could survive translation to an opera or a cave painting, I'm not so sure that the economic and bureaucratic challenges surrounding our current figureheads will hold up to similar historic scrutiny.

But if anyone should someday try, perhaps they'll do it in Italian.

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Jan 20