For one of the last times, the Lyric Opera of Chicago took the stage Tuesday night to perform Doctor Atomic, a recent opera by composer John Adams and long-time collaborator and librettist Peter Sellars. The action takes place on the day of the first test of the atomic bomb, when J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and his team of scientists grapple with the meaning of what they are doing. Sellars, Adams, and choreographer Lucinda Childs examine the meaning of the age they have chosen with techniques specific to their media.
The bare, modern stage combined the industrial with the pastoral in the weirdly alien New Mexico landscape of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb test took place. Scientists jerked mechanically through their experiments behind tall wooden fences. The floating giant orb of “the Gadget,” the device used to explode the bomb, replaces the moon. And hard metal horns pumped like pistons over the organic, bubbling woodwinds, while strings droned or sighed.
Most interesting to the University of Chicago student will be the libretto. The dialogue, especially between Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty (brilliantly sung by Jessica Rivera), rely heavily on quotation. John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and the Bhagavad-Gita make prominent appearances. The highly literate Oppenheimer was known for spouting quotations, and reportedly walked around the day of the test saying that he was Vishnu, destroyer of worlds. He named the test site Trinity after a Donne poem. Baritone Gerald Finley, as Oppenheimer, did the same, reading Baudelaire while wandering the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico.
This overt, almost excessive quotation helps to recreate one important aspect of the spirit of the age: experience filtered through formal knowledge. Science and man struggle to incorporate and control nature. Hence the driving, mechanistic rhythms of the music. The chorus lurches slowly across the stage while lifting and lowering Bacchic pines, cogs of eternal nature now grinding out industrial time. Doctor Atomic is a treatise on this theme—and the political and social implications of unleashing the destruction of the basic unit of matter.
Munching on candy bars in the dark, the scientists contemplate the great destructive evil they have unleashed on mankind, hoping it will ultimately be the savior of civilization. Even though the weapon is no longer needed to defeat already-surrendered Germany, they decide the only hope of stopping the bomb and saving their souls is to use it—convincing the world that the next war could be fatal to civilization, and creating, as Kitty calls it, the fierce peace, the flame of peace. Fellow scientist Edward Teller, played by Richard Paul Fink, declares that “our only hope is to convince every one that the next war might be fatal…. Could we have entered the atomic age with clean hands?”
Despite the scientists’ musings, the last word and the moral center of the opera is not cold-war politics. Adams has a serious commitment to humanism and populism. At the opera, however, one is constantly reminded that the venue is an elite institution. The crowd bustled with women in chinchilla coats. A bottle of water cost three dollars, a mixed drink nine. And at one point, two couples passed each other—on one side I heard, “I just don’t think Americans can write opera;” on the other, “Well, it certainly isn’t New York.”
The irony was not lost on me. Adams deliberately Americanizes and democratizes old, grand operatic forms. The uniformed, uniform chorus played a prominent role as the common man, and even the main characters blended together as part of the anonymous suited bureaucracy that really drives the inertia of progress. One of the opening lines tells us that the atomic bomb was not built by a small number of great men, but “by hundreds of ordinary Americans and concerned citizens working for the good of their country.”
Robert Wilson, the youngest scientist in charge of a group at Los Alamos, speaks passionately for the people who could be hurt by the bomb.
The scientists tentatively assume that Japan will be given at least a few days’ warning, as that would be the honorable thing to do. The terrible irony of their naïveté is overpowering, when soft, polite, but pleading (and untranslated) Japanese are the final words heard in the Chicago production. They follow the human scream that morphs into the shriek of a bomb dropping which represents the explosion of the first successful test of the A-bomb. Pregnant silence births the atomic age.
Man and nature, East and West, the ‘noble’ and the ‘common’: What the opera ultimately expresses are the anxieties of a precarious modernity. The ’50s, and the atomic bomb, would change that world forever.