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Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

Editor's Note: Last month, we published a review and slide show of Doctor Atomic, the opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Today we present a review by Skeptic columnist Michael Shermer.

There are certain characters in science who stand out for their larger-than-science characteristics: Galileo and his conflicts with Papal authorities; Albert Einstein and his political dabblings and pacifist overtures; Richard Feynman and his safecracking, storytelling antics; Stephen Hawking and his ethereal brain trapped in a frozen body. Biographies, documentaries, films, and even plays have attempted to capture the essence of these giants (see QED, for example, the play starring Alan Alda as Feynman). But to my knowledge, none have had an opera produced in their likeness.

Enter Doctor Atomic, a look at the meaning behind the making of the atomic bomb from the perspective of its paterfamilias J. Robert Oppenheimer and his disparate struggles: with nature to reveal her secrets, with his conscious to ease his guilt. He also struggles with General Leslie R. Groves, the titular military head of the Manhattan Project, and with fellow physicist and future father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.

Doctor Atomic, which finishes a run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York Thursday (November 13) and will have another staging at the English National Opera in London, is produced by John Adams (Nixon in China) and stars Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Eric Owens as General Groves, and Sasha Cooke as Oppenheimer’s long-suffering wife Kitty. The setting is Los Alamos, New Mexico, where “the gadget” was built and tested for the first time, with Act 1 about a month before completion and Act 2 the night before and the countdown to the first test at Trinity.

If you’ve not experienced an opera in modern English, it takes some getting used to. Mundane conversations take on significance when set in a foreign language, but lose that here. The gravitas of this opera, however, is in the haunting music, the dramatic sets, and especially in the subject matter itself, for seemingly commonplace dialogue is rapidly elevated when the topic is whether uranium or plutonium will kill the most people. The libretto, in fact, was pieced together from numerous historical sources, including Edward Teller’s Memoirs, historian Ferenc Szasz’s The Day the Sun Rose Twice, Robert Norris’s Racing for the Bomb, and others. When Doctor Atomic lets us in on conversations that the Los Alamos scientists had about the possibility that the test shot might set the atmosphere on fire, and gambled on the TNT equivalency of the bomb, we are listening in on history itself.

The opera is long (3.5 hours with intermission), with several interludes not critical to the making, morality, or meaning of the bomb (for example, Groves’s ruminations on diets and his weight). The magnificence of the music, dialogue, sets, costumes, and lighting more than makes up for the length. You feel transported in time, and the opera ends with the audience in the White Sands desert at ground zero—Trinity—played up for its theological meaning. That was the name Oppenheimer gave it, based on Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you / As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend; / That I might rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’ and bend / Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.”

This is, in fact, the underlying leitmotif of Doctor Atomic, and explains my trifling disappointment at the anticlimatic ending to an opera about what is arguably the most climatic event of the 20th century. I was fully expecting the dramatic countdown to the explosion—conveyed by numerous ticking clocks—to end in a flash of light to fill the Met, with Oppenheimer uttering his famous reflection from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Instead, a glow on the horizon signals test success, and as the chorus goes silent from their wordless vibratory exclamations and the cast stares straight ahead at us, we were treated to a Japanese woman’s voice calling for a drink of water. We were suddenly transported to Hiroshima and the audience was the bomb.

Still, Doctor Atomic is a work of stunning depth and unqualified emotion that should be appreciated by sell-out audiences for years to come, for its themes echo the Faustian bargain we continue to make by advancing 21st century science when 1st century political regimes rule parts of the world.

Photo of Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

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