The Steiny Road to Operadom
a travelogue of the new opera
Gertrude Stein Invents 
A Jump Early On
Bumper Cars
with Karren Alenier

In her "Reflections on the Atomic Bomb" written in 1946, Gertrude Stein said, "it's the living that are interesting not the way of killing them." So it is through the story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the opera Doctor Atomic that composer John Adams and director-librettist Peter Sellars have approached the subject concerning how the United States of America brought World War II to a clear-cut end. However, in Doctor Atomic, the detonation of the first test bomb in New Mexico is all expectation because as San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg stated in a pre-performance talk, an artist must come at such horrific events as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tangentially.

In this episode of the Steiny Road to Operadom, the Poet will explore the electricity generated by the much anticipated world premiere of John Adam's third opera by providing a report from the community at large and also a short vignette of the 50th anniversary celebration of the first reading of Allen Ginsberg's provocative epic poem Howl, which Gary Snider described as a "poetical bombshell" in a prophetic letter urging Philip Whalen to participate in the Six Gallery reading.  


Before the Poet left home on the East Coast for San Francisco to attend the opening night premiere of Doctor Atomic on October 1, 2005, she met a couple who had recently attended a 60th anniversary reunion at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they had worked on the top secret Manhattan Project under the direction of Brigadier General Leslie Grove, a critical character in Doctor Atomic. From 1942 to 1946 over 175,000 people had worked on the Manhattan Project in three locations, including Oak Ridge; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico.  

This husband and wife were the parents of Juanita Rockwell, librettist of the opera with composer James Sellars (no relation to director Peter Sellars) The World is Round based on a text of the same title by Gertrude Stein. Juanita's father Theodore Rockwell, a prominent nuclear engineer until his retirement and author of Creating the New World: Stories & Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age, spoke enthusiastically about the Oak Ridge reunion and the Adams opera in San Francisco. Juanita who has studied directing with Peter Sellars said when Sellars was the Director of the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center, she would often invite her parents to see the avant-garde plays being directed or produced by this MacArthur Prize-winning Fellow. Although the Poet initially wondered to herself if one could take pride in serving one's country in the Manhattan Project and also want to see Doctor Atomic, an opera by two men who are consistently confronting politically fraught subjects, a quick dip into Mr. Rockwell's stories from the Atomic Age answered that un-PC question and also reinforced the backstory that scientists who got involved with the Manhattan Project expected their work with nuclear fission not only to stop Hitler's attempts to produce an atomic bomb first but also  to produce breakthroughs that would benefit humankind such as those seen later in medicine and in the production of electricity.  


When the Poet picked up the phone to see if San Francisco Bay Area friend Roy Nierenberg and his wife Mimi Sheiner might be going to see Doctor Atomic and therefore share in the Poet's excitement, she heard first that Mimi went to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, the same school (though the name has changed over the years) from which Robert Oppenheimer and his brother Frank graduated. Mimi further explained that many prominent Americans such as photographer Diane Arbus, poets Howard Nemerov and Muriel Rukeyser, and composer Stephen Sondheim had attended this school that was set up originally to provide education to settlement house children who would not otherwise have been schooled. Known for shunning rote learning and memorization of facts in favor of experiential learning and independent thinking, the school whose majority population has always been Jewish later served to counter the anti-Semitism and racial inequality encountered at many private schools feeding entrance into Ivy League colleges.  

Mimi also said when she first moved to California, she had had the opportunity to meet with Frank Oppenheimer who in 1969 had founded San Francisco's hands-on science museum The Exploratorium. So yes, Mimi, who is not usually interested in opera, was psyched to see Doctor Atomic. The Poet pauses momentarily to say that Frank Oppenheimer, eight years younger than his brother Robert, was also a prominent physicist who was employed by the Manhattan Project and who lost his career as a physics professor because he was accused of being a communist during the McCarthy witch-hunt and stripped of his security clearance.  

On the other hand, Roy, who volunteers at the San Francisco Opera as an usher, was eager to see this new work as part of his ardent interest in opera, but also for his own up-close-and-personal encounter with the Oppenheimers. Roy's story is that in the 1960s he was visiting his brother Roddy at Princeton and about to return by bus to his undergraduate studies in physics at Columbia when he spotted Robert Oppenheimer assisting a young woman with her bags. Thus Roy had a couple of hours talking with Oppenheimer's daughter who was studying to be a teacher also at Columbia. Roy said he found Oppenheimer's daughter to be very down to earth and not the intense intellectual her father was. In any case and as Roy told his fourteen-year-old son Zeke who eagerly attend Doctor Atomic, "I knew that baby up there on the San Francisco Opera stage!"

The Poet arrived on the West Coast in time to hear Pamela Rosenberg speak at the Berkeley Public Library, only a stone's throw away from Robert Oppenheimer's office at the University of California Berkeley. The idea to create an opera about Oppenheimer was Rosenberg's and it completed a thread she had developed in her programming at the SFO about the tragic figure of Doctor Faust who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge. In fact the original suggested title for the Adams opera was Doctor Atomic, The American Faust.  About 150 people attended this pre-premiere event and from the Poet's point of view, the talk was meant to reach into the EastBay communities as opposed to an event that could have been arranged more centrally at the main library of San Francisco, which is only two blocks from the War Memorial Opera House. After the talk, the Poet accidentally connected with a woman who had known Oppenheimer's wife and children. This woman volunteered that Oppenheimer's family members were "plain folks" in exactly the same way my friend Roy had described Oppenheimer's daughter.


The next day the Poet planned to hear John Adams speak at UC Berkeley. Not knowing where the building was, she managed to hitch a ride on a campus cart where she met a retiree from the Atomic Energy Commission. T.K. Subramanian was headed to a math reception to promote careers in mathematics for young women.  The name of the location of the math reception sounded suspiciously like the location of the Adams lecture. However, T.K. was early and the Adams talk appealed to him and so the two managed to find the right building together but only to discover the Adams talk cancelled. T.K. then suggested a visit to the former office of Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg. That appealed to the Poet since Seaborg's son Eric had collaborated on the book American Discoveries with her friend Ellen Dudley who at one time worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national environmental and arms control organization.

Besides giving the Poet a good look at a group of young scientists huddled over an experiment in the office adjoining the historic site of Seaborg's significant work that included discovery of ten atomic elements including plutonium and one that bears his name (seaborgium), T.K. managed through lecture and an impromptu photo shoot to create a stir on the third floor of Gilman Hall drawing in both students and professors. So the Poet suggested, "why not visit Oppenheimer's office next?" Undaunted, T.K. said, "OK, let's see."

However, what T.K. failed to mention until arriving at Le Conte Hall was the building was undergoing renovation and that he had already asked the head of the physics department if he could gain entry to see Oppenheimer's office and she said, No, it wasn't possible. So as the two visitors stood in front of the bill board which explained the renovation, a man came out of the construction site and T.K. nabbed him, first asking if he knew whose office had been in this building (the man knew) and could he have a photo with this man who turned out to be the University construction manager. Next thing, the Poet and the intrepid self-appointed tour guide were climbing the stripped-down stairs to the third floor where J. Robert Oppenheimer had an office with a balcony. The Poet also learned that T.K. is putting his energy behind making Oppenheimer's office a national historic landmark as Seaborg's was designated in 1966. T.K. said sending an e-mail message to Physics Chairperson Dr Marjorie Shapiro at would help.

Before leaving the subject of scientists, one should note that the American Physical Society headed by its current president UC Berkeley physics professor Marvin Cohen has endorsed Doctor Atomic with the following statement.  

    "The American Physical Society recognizes the importance of the Manhattan Project in our history and endorses the creative role of the arts in helping the public to understand it. We believe that the production of this opera will provide a remarkable opportunity for people to learn both about the history surrounding this event and the physics that was crucial to it."

Apparently Cohen persuaded the Society, whose members were initially reluctant to make any endorsement. Typically the APS does not endorse works of art, but Cohen pointed out that operas often have a long life, and that 200 years hence, Doctor Atomic might be the principal cultural expression of the Manhattan Project, and therefore it would justify an endorsement. It is remarkable that the members made this endorsement since the opening lines of the opera, "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can be neither created or destroyed" are incompatible with the discovery established by Einstein's 1905 theorem E=MC˛. Moreover, Cohen had pointed out the error to Adams over a year ago, but then two weeks before the premiere Cohen realized that the error had not been fixed. Adams and Sellars initially told the press that the lines would be corrected in time for the opening, but then Adams said he tried and could not do it, so the correction would have to air during the next productions in Chicago and Amsterdam.


On opening night, the Poet traveled from El Cerrito by B.A.R.T, the San Francisco Bay Area public transportation system, and observed that lots of people in her part of the train were going into San Francisco to see Doctor Atomic and were talking about it animatedly both with companions and with strangers who were eager to hear about the new Adams opera. Even in a downscale kebab house near the subway exit where the Poet stopped for some refreshments, a stranger with a Dali-esque mustache turned before escaping out the front door to ask if the Poet was going to the opera because that was where he was headed too. And at the opera house she met people who had traveled great distances for this one evening: a woman named Silver who lived in a cattle town in Colorado and another named Margie who had come with a contingent from the Tulsa Opera. It was a sold out house with standing room only.

The next day the Poet got back on the B.A.R.T, headed to a tribute program at the San Francisco Library in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. On the train ride into the City, she scrupulously read the program which is filled with the poetry used in the opera as well as chronologies and essays pertaining to Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, the choreography of Lucinda Childs, the philosophy of Adams and Sellars. When she looked up, a young man sitting next to her excused himself but wanted to know about the opera. Have you seen it? What did you think? Did you like Doctor Atomic?

At the risk of sounding like a teenager, the Poet says to everyone who asks, Doctor Atomic was awesome but this means terrorizing, that it was the same experience as trying to work one's way out of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The Poet could hardly breathe during this opera that puts one, as Gertrude Stein would say, into the "present moment" with current day disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the 9/11 terrorism. The Poet thinks that had she been at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco that night of October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg first read his world-changing poem Howl, she would have also felt terrorized in the same way that the Adams opera made her feel.  For example, consider these lines:

    "…who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, I listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox…" from Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Of course the Steiny Road Poet would have been too young for such an event where the room was filled with smoke, people drinking the California burgundy wine Jack Kerouac had purchased with money from the crowd, and Kenneth Rexroth lying on the floor shouting go, go, go as Allen spewed out his images of drugs, sex, madness, and suicide in a landscape haunted by the prospect of the hydrogen bomb, a bomb more devastatingly powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Poet's first encounter with the Daddy of Beat Poetry was when he read with his father Louis (a formalist poet) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the early 1970s during a week of protests at the Pentagon against the Vietnam War. At this reading in the Nation's capital, the Poet was with her childhood friend Diane who upon spying her boss slid way down in her seat to avoid being seen. Apparently Allen's political activism had brought out Richard Helms, the head of the C.I.A. where Diane, an accomplished mathematician, worked as a trajectory analyst.

What the Poet does remember from the early 1950s were the duck-and-cover bomb drills we had in grade school, which people now joke about as the kiss-your-ass-good-bye contortion. Juanita Rockwell said many families in her neighborhood had bomb shelters fully stocked with canned food and bottles of water. My ever-expanding family that made the Poet one of six kids by 1957 was just lucky to have shelter, period and exclamation mark! And by the way, how many people do you, Dear Reader, know who have followed Homeland Security warnings about creating a safe place in your home stocked with enough food and water for three days in case some kind of terrorist bomb, be it anthrax or otherwise, is dropped on your neighborhood and what about those unprotected nuclear reactors at universities all around our country?

The Six Gallery Goes Golden: 50 Years of Poetry Renaissance, Howl, and Literary Activism organized by activist writer Gerald Nicosia drew a fire-code-breaking, standing-room-only, sit-in-the-aisles crowd. Although none of the original and still living participants such as Gary Snyder or Michael McClure appeared at the San Francisco Library, there were several speakers who had attended that historic reading which numbered 150 people. One of those three, Mark Linenthal said that first reading of Howl "brought poetry to its spiritual roots of Whitman and Blake [two poets from whom Ginsberg took inspiration], revived the oral tradition, and as an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) dispelled the narcotic haze of Capitalism." Linenthal was one of many academics who explicated Howl to the judge presiding over the obscenity charges levied against Ginsberg and his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Linenthal said it was a graduate seminar in literature.

William Carlos Williams in his introduction to Howl wrote:

    "It is the belief in the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that the Jews in the past war. … We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem."  


In the making of Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars and John Adams have dipped into the horrors that haunted Allen Ginsberg's life and poetry. Although the textual approach is mostly cerebral in Doctor Atomic, the music, particularly when Adams uses music concrete collages of running motors, babies crying, and people speaking Japanese, is exceptionally visceral creating an inescapable vibration of dread. Peter Sellars in the opening night talk to introduce Doctor Atomic said, "Greeks invented opera to discuss what could not be said in the Senate." Perhaps, this is what the community leaning in close around Doctor Atomic seeks, an articulation of all that has not been said about weapons of mass destruction. Well, the Poet is not sure about this and thinks that people prefer to bask in the light emanating from geniuses both in purposeful working arrangements and accidental encounters. Surely knowledge by such osmotic contact is more exhilarating and less painful.


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©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at
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november 2005