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The Nuclear Option 

An original opera about the makers of the atomic bomb fails to ignite

Wednesday, Oct 12 2005
At a recent press conference for Doctor Atomic, a new opera about the events leading up to the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945, at Los Alamos, N.M., I made the mistake of asking the chief architects of the work, director and librettist Peter Sellars and composer John Adams, about how they planned to stage the detonation scene. My question was followed by an uncomfortable silence during which Adams shuffled and looked down at his feet and Sellars smiled as one does at a small child describing his pet goldfish. Instead of answering my question directly, Sellars launched into an impassioned lecture about modern culture's unhealthy obsession with flashy special effects. Doctor Atomic, he said, would have less to do with the literal, physical explosion of the bomb than with its impact on the consciences of those who brought "The Gadget" into being. The most dramatic combustion, in other words, would be internal.

The closing beat of Doctor Atomic -- with its rows of prostrate Los Alamos residents bracing themselves against the noise and glare -- may more closely resemble one of New York artist Spencer Tunick's famous mass nude installations (though the New Mexicans are fully clothed) than the climax of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, but the opera doesn't quite match up to Sellars' vision. I'm not suggesting that the crux should consist of strobe lights, simulated mushroom clouds, and coloratura sopranos wailing, panic-stricken, over an ostinato of crashing timpani and blaring brass. Still, the restrained ending, while full of ghostly-calm portentousness, left me feeling disconnected and underwhelmed.

I didn't expect to leave the opera house feeling that way. With the current global preoccupation with weapons of mass destruction and the fact that 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the first atom bomb test and its subsequent use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the story of the Manhattan Project resonates vitally with our own time. I couldn't imagine a duo better equipped to make the connection between 1945 and 2005 than Adams and Sellars. In their previous operatic collaborations, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), the artists reached beyond accepted notions of depicted historical events -- Richard Nixon's 1972 meeting in China with Mao Tse-tung and the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, respectively -- to draw out essential, almost mythical layers embedded within the narratives. The common description of Klinghoffer and Nixon as "CNN operas" for their superficial likeness to the documentary genre misses the point. These works are as emotional and human as they are intellectually provocative.

In the source material for Doctor Atomic, Sellars and Adams have a perfect starting point for an exploration of the inner conflict facing the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. The protagonist of the opera, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, was by all accounts a brilliant, self-tortured fellow. There's enough conflict within this character alone to sustain an entire opera. Focused and pragmatic, Oppenheimer felt that his fellow physicists should stick to science and stay out of political affairs. But as a rapacious scholar of everything from 17th-century French poetry to Eastern religion, he was also profoundly intellectual and spiritual. Other historical figures in Doctor Atomic further draw out the moral conflict inherent in the building of the bomb: The young researcher Robert Wilson, for instance, campaigns in vain against the use of atomic power on real targets, while Gen. Leslie Groves passionately believes in the fearsome new weapon's ability to bring about a swift end to the war.

Yet despite these conflicted voices, Doctor Atomic strikes a truly human chord in only one brief, emotionally devastating scene. The moment in question occurs just before the intermission, when Oppenheimer, personified by the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, confronts his fears alone in the deserted laboratory on the night before the test. The suspended bomb's shadow looms from behind a white canvas backlit by a cold light as the character recalls the words of the John Donne sonnet that inspired him to name the Manhattan Project site "Trinity": "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," sings Finley to Adams' drooping, melancholy cadences. This haunting aria is the sublime heart of the piece. Though the scene is overwhelming in its beauty and simplicity, Doctor Atomic never touches that tortured core again.

In contrast, the rest of the opera passes like flying atoms in a nuclear reactor, an exhausting blur of constantly trundling sets, psychedelic lights, and darting bodies. Sellars, Adams, and their collaborators stockpile ingenious ideas as if each were a precious sample of uranium-235. There are so many of these intellectual concepts jostling for the viewer's attention -- from Adams' use of electronically mangled power-tool noises to evoke the musique concrète of the post-Holocaust era and choreographer Lucinda Childs' references to Native American dance to Adrianne Lobel's minimalistic, Asian-influenced set depicting the distant New Mexico mountains and the radioactive colors of James F. Ingalls' lighting design -- that one feels under siege.

The collage of found texts that makes up the opera's libretto only adds to the feeling of overstimulation. The mixture of the dryly prosaic (declassified government documents) with the perfumed poetry of such writers as Muriel Rukeyser and Baudelaire and fierce incantations from the Bhagavad-Gita is meant, I guess, to evoke a mood rather than act as straight narrative. But the choice and juxtaposition of these texts at times feels tangential and confusing. Sellars' characters speak of their internal struggles: "Let me say I have no hope of clearing my conscience," sings baritone Richard Paul Fink, for instance, as physicist Edward Teller, repeating words taken from an actual letter sent by Teller to his colleague Leo Szilard in 1945. Yet it's hard to engage with their inner lives, in part because of the cluttered staging, in part because the jolting, science-fiction-inspired score leaves many of the texts sounding more like arid recitatives than heartfelt arias. As a result, the work's impact remains largely external; any internal conflict registers as mere fact.

In his reconstruction of the mysterious 1941 meeting between the atomic scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Copenhagen, British playwright Michael Frayn conveyed a vision of moral turmoil that Sellars and Adams largely fail to achieve. Comparing a three-character stage play to a full-scale opera featuring 13 characters, a battalion-size chorus, and a full pit orchestra isn't necessarily helpful, but I draw the comparison to illustrate how the theme of the development of nuclear power can become a work that's at once epic and intimate. Regardless of the physical staging, the detonation scene in Doctor Atomic should be a moment of reckoning; it should feel like a trapdoor opening into a terrible new hell. Instead, by the time the countdown is complete, Adams and Sellars' fuse is well and truly spent.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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