Some thoughts on opera and Doctor Atomic...
Soho the Dog comments on opera in general:
But opera is, for the most part, about inflating human emotions to gargantuan proportions: we thrill to see ourselves writ large, but it doesn't move us beyond the experience of this world.
And it's the gargantuan proportions that I find unappealing. For example, seeing Bernstein's small-scale Trouble in Tahiti was, in hindsight, a more satisfying experience than seeing Doctor Atomic. Which was the better "hearing" experience? Hard to say. One of the Soho the Dog's commenters suggests Bernstein's Mass as the best, albiet failed, attempt at the Great American Opera.
Then, Kinderkuchen criticizes John Adams' compositional skills for emphasizing relevance at the expense of humanity:
He just leaves out even the tiniest representation of human emotions.
While it's true the Doctor Atomic characters weren't particularly compelling, if the work wasn't somehow relevant to contemporary life, I would have never attended. As another example, I didn't even bother to attend the Ligeti opera in San Francisco several years ago even though he's a favored composer, probably because I expected it to be some stylized, Euro-oriented production. On the other hand, Philip Glass' Akhnaten in Oakland had the trick where the audience pretends to be on a contemporary Egyptian tour as you enter the theatre. This, plus imagining that George Bush is Akhnaten, in both ascent and fall, made for compelling drama (on top of excellent direction and performance).
I still haven't decided if the music of Doctor Atomic was something of merit or not. It was in Adams' Nixon in China, despite the composer saying he used the orchestra as if it were a "ukelele." A year later, the electronic sounds of Doctor Atomic remain the most memorable.
Finally, Kinderkuchen also mentions the pre-opera talk by Peter Sellars. I managed to see the John Adams-equivalent (twice). I have to say Adams' talk about the opera was witty, sophisticated and interesting, both in describing the inherent drama in the subject matter and in the challenges with creating the art. It's not clear the opera met those same standards...
The conclusion here is how I apparently expect opera to be relevant, emotional, intellectually engaging, musically rewarding and yet not overwhelming as a spectacle. Maybe my expectations are a bit too high, explaining why I only subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for a year. The live simulcast at Stanford next month of Rigoletto is an intriguing idea, though...