March 3, 2009

ENO's Doctor Atomic, the focus of intense debate

ENO's Doctor Atomic, the focus of intense debate

John Adams is absolutely right in his views on contemporary opera. During an interview with BBC Newsnight, broadcast on Friday 27 February, he said ‘alongside abortion and gun control there is no better way to get people shouting at each other’. The composer of Doctor Atomic, which opened for the first time in the UK at ENO on Wednesday 25 February, would have smiled if he’d seen the final few minutes of BBC Newsnight Review when a heated discussion between the three critics – Jeannette Winterson, Paul Morley and Tom Service – and dissolved into a cacophony of shouting and raised voices about his new opera. In comparison, the previous discussion of the newly opened Picasso exhibition was positively tame.


It was the second heated discussion around Doctor Atomic last week. On Wednesday 26 February an RSA and ENO debate explored ‘What really drives Scientific Development?’ and pondered the human dimension, ethic and moral considerations as well as political and economic drivers. John Adams and the director of Doctor Atomic Penny Woolcock joined a panel including eminent science writers Lewis Wolpert, Jim Baggot and Alom Shaha – it was certainly lively.


I seem to remember equally robust discussions in the media about ENO’s production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (with Improbable Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera, New York) and Olga Neuwirth ‘ s Lost Highway, which we staged at the Young Vic theatre last year.  


Opera, and most potently, contemporary opera, is not for the fainthearted. It often sets off its own explosion of opinion (it is not unusual for some to give composers a masterclass in composition). Yet opera can make people think more about the world in which we live and has a unique ability to provoke the kind of discussion which Doctor Atomic has done over the last few months – bringing one of the most controversial events of the 20th century into focus again.  


I hope this is not the last opera from John Adams and we look forward to more productions from Penny Woolcock in the future.


John Berry

Artistic Director, ENO

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