With its dense, frenetic orchestra and ruminative account of a day that changed human history, the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic is usually staged as an array of physicists and military generals standing around the New Mexico landscape, wondering if the first atomic bomb will ignite the entire planet -- and looking worried.
"But who wants to watch that?" said R.B. Schlather, who conceived the Curtis Opera Theatre production playing Thursday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
So, in a rehearsal, when bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer comes in from a hard day at the cyclotron, he sheds his orange jumpsuit and other clothes with a grace that could be inspired by choreographer Mark Morris. His relationship with his wife, Kitty, has perhaps never been so explicitly sexual. The Act I finale -- when Oppenheimer suffers an inner crisis while singing the John Donne sonnet "Batter My Heart" -- is being kept under wraps until opening night.
"I can safely say that nobody has seen the aria staged this way," said baritone Jonathan McCullough, who portrays Oppenheimer. "He feels that he should be punished for his actions," adds Schlather, "but nobody is doing that. So he is taking that upon himself."
The scene, the role, and the opera all bear the indelible stamp of the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who played Oppenheimer in San Francisco, Amsterdam, and New York.
But the spirit of the Curtis production is not to fear precedents. "Now we can step away and go with the text," says McCullough, who coincidentally takes voice lessons in the same Manhattan apartment building where Oppenheimer once lived. That's one explanation why McCullough talks about Oppenheimer in the present tense.
The production has the unusual freedom to maneuver that could perhaps happen only at a conservatory such as Curtis, under conditions that Schlather describes as "unheard-of in this business."
Big-house opera productions are conceived and designed three years in advance. Schlather radically changed course after the November election, aiming toward something more simple and abstract.
In the weeks before opening, Schlather was still revising his interpretation until landing in the place where composer Adams started. It's a Faust story: Oppenheimer achieves godlike powers he isn't sure he should have.
"The singers will do anything, they'll try anything, and they're extremely well-prepared," said conductor Timothy Myers. Also, they don't have to yell to be heard above Adams' 65-piece orchestra: It was written for singers to have microphones, which allows them to achieve intimacy within the opera's grandeur -- another point of freedom, allowing them to project details that normally wouldn't be heard.
Premiered in 2005, Doctor Atomic is considered the grandest and most ambitious John Adams opera so far, with an orchestra full of seething layers suggesting the bomb's potential and the anxiety of those who were creating it during the desperate end of World War II.
Plot suspense isn't the point. In the anything-is-plausible world of modern opera, the Peter Sellars libretto has the Los Alamos scientists, their wives, and their children sharing the moral dilemma of atomic power, singing declassified documents from the Manhattan Project mixed in with quotations from poetry, including Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita.
The scope has mainly confined Doctor Atomic to the grandest of opera companies. In his more agile production setting, Schlather reinterprets the work in the wake of the election.
He's not alone in doing so. David Byrne's new musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire greets audiences at New York's Public Theater with a curtain containing a quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." Conductor Simon Rattle remarked last week during the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's streamed performance of the Ligeti opera Le Grand Macabre that its story about a faltering dictatorship was meant to be satire but now "reads like the pages of the New York Times."
The impact of the Curtis production is impossible to predict -- and that's the idea. The Terese Wadden costumes remain surprisingly specific, with work clothes splattered with chemicals. But the original set that resembled a parade route with bleachers is now an extremely simple round disc that, in Schlather's mind, can be anything from a bed to a forum for soapbox speeches. "Whatever headlines you're reading, come to the show and bring that with you," says Schlather. "I"m trying to use this piece as a way ... to have a place where you can sit and contemplate your life. It feels like a more potent event for our times."
Curtis Opera Theatre called Schlather -- still young in his career at age 31 -- to stage the piece following an Opera Philadelphia public workshop last year. After growing up with the Glimmerglass Opera in his native Cooperstown, N.Y., he has worked as an assistant to the innovative stage director Christopher Alden on projects including a New York City opera production of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place that's widely credited with rehabilitating the troubled piece. On his own, Schlather has directed much-discussed Handel operas in small art gallery spaces on New York's Lower East Side.
A commanding figure with shoulder-length black hair and intense eyes, he often talks about stripping away artifice to see what's there -- though what he sees reflects his singular vision more than any fundamental objective truth in the piece. He has an air of defiance, and it's one that local operagoers will be getting used to: Schlather has future engagements with Opera Philadelphia.
His playing field is extremely wide, and updating operatic archetypes is only the beginning. In Handel's Orlando, for example, you wondered why that denizen of the New York subway was carrying around such a large turquoise cake.
"What's cool about opera is that you have a score that controls the time and the sound," says Schlather. "You can always go back to the music, and see where it takes you ...."