Last month saw the UK premier of John Adams' 2005 opera Dr Atomic – a joint production at the Coliseum by English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera of New York. The piece dramatises the lead up to the first atomic bomb test in 1945 – the culmination of the 'Manhattan Project'. The title refers to Dr Robert Oppenheimer, the lead role sung by Gerard Finley. Appearing in cinemas last month was Zack Snyder's adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, where in an alternate 1980s America, superheroes lead difficult and confusing lives, juggling fighting crime with fighting their own emotional and psychological problems – all in the shadow of imminent global nuclear war. Oppenheimer's counterpart in Watchmen would have to be the big blue naked figure of Dr Manhattan – a scientist transformed into a living weapon by an accident whilst working on the atomic bomb in (the alternate) 1945. In one work, the possibility of nuclear war provides a conclusive solution to the narrative, in the other simply a full stop, at the end of a less reassuring sentence. Although the outcome of the Manhattan project will come as no surprise to an audience at Dr Atomic, this article includes spoilers for Watchmen…
Watchmen begins with a man being thrown from his apartment window and continues through what seems like hundreds of bigger or smaller skirmishes – bones are broken, limbs severed, victims immolated or eviscerated completely, in neat vignettes set to punchy soundtracks. Adams' clanging, screaming score for Dr Atomic plays alongside one of the most elaborate sets and audio systems in current opera, incorporating a large chorus and orchestra, augmented by recorded sound played Dolby-surround-style throughout the auditorium. These works offer spectacle – several hours apiece of bold, high-impact entertainment – in which ingenious use of a medium leaves sounds and images etched onto ones mind for days afterwards. Both works deal with the burden of responsibility that comes with great technological, martial or supernatural power and the adverse personal effects on those who wield such power. They also ask to be taken more seriously than other works in their respective contexts: the length and difficulty of Adams' opera set it aside from the likes of La Boheme or Carmen; very graphic violence and, again, its length signify that Watchmen is a step on from something like Superman Returns or even the X-men films.
'Dr Atomic' (Oppenhiemer) and the most memorable 'Watchman', Dr Manhattan, wield God-like power and are consequently distanced from the rest of mankind. In these works this ostricisation is exemplified by the characters' sexual difficulties with their partners. Dr Atomic includes a scene (one apparently very unpopular with audiences) where Mrs Oppenhiemer struggles to distract her husband from his work, illustrating an absence of affection that has seemingly driven her mad by the second act. Likewise, Dr Manhattan fails to satisfy his lover Silk Spectre, when she realises he has split himself into four, to allow three versions of himself to continue constructing some kind of nuclear power plant whilst the remaining quarter is in bed with her.
Both stories lead up to a detonation: the incessant violence in Watchmen ends in the destruction of a large part of New York, indirectly by Dr Manhattan himself, in an attempt to avoid war between the USA and USSR, introducing an ultimate 'bad guy', a global deterrent superseding the threat posed by individual nations to each other. After frequent appearances of the World Trade Centre towers in the background (most memorably looming over a rain-swept funeral scene), by the end of the film America has in fact suffered a 9/11-like disaster – yet it ends with an affirmative tone with building beginning in the crater left in New York. The narrative is not allowed to float into complete fantasy; the Watchmen become implicated in the war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon appears as a character in the story. Like Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), the film has a hint of the packaging up of difficult things into digestible, entertaining chunks. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Watchmen is that its central message seems to be that extreme violence, on local and global scales, is both necessary and personally rewarding (and equated with sexual prowess) and in the end the only voice of dissent (the pathologically violent Rorshach) is (apparently) justifiably splattered all over Antarctic snow by Dr Manhattan. Watchmen is a fascinating thing, not as a film, but as a symptom. In its request to be taken more seriously than other superhero films, it also needs to be more serious in itself – perhaps stronger, more convincing violence, for example, should come with stronger justification.
It is not within the remit of something like Adams' opera to provide affirmation through pleasing narrative conclusion; how could revisiting such massive guilt possibly be made reassuring? Of course, it is in the difficulty of both the subject and the piece itself that it provides a (different) kind of affirmation – assurance that the audience are not merely spectators to an evening's entertainment, they are watching (self consciously) heavy Art. The piece has 'Monumental' written all over it, however, when it strays from the main drama and tries to examine individual psychologies around the bomb itself it starts to seem a little stretched (the prolonged discussion of a particular military man's eating disorder verges on ridiculous). There is a wonderful part in Peter Sellers' libretto where two characters discuss the likelihood of the first atomic bomb igniting the earth's entire atmosphere – these moments that evoke the terrifying unknown beyond the brink of violent scientific breakthrough are the most memorable of the opera.
So as audiences leave their respective theatres, Dr Oppenheimer and Dr Manhattan have both unleashed terrible power upon their alternate worlds, with much interior wranglings and retreat from humankind. Spectators step away from the edge of apocalypse, hopefully in some way satiated.