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Atomic Histories and Nuclear Futures: Peter Sellars on Doctor Atomic

By Peter Sellars


Atomic Histories and Nuclear Futures: Peter Sellars on Doctor Atomic

The pristine beauty and austere spiritual grandeur of the landscapes and skyscapes of New Mexico, their epic formations and enduring secret cañons, are at the heart of Pueblo Indian culture, ceremonies, arts, and ways of living that align human beings with cosmic vision and communal purpose. Indigenous technologies include dancing and feast days in which the body and the earth meet to call forth the weather and the wellbeing of ancestors, friends, neighbors, planet, and family.

Opera has its earliest roots in indigenous culture — a special occasion to gather people and peoples through the weave of music, song, poetry, art, dance, and ceremony. In multiple voices, time- frames, and art forms, opera creates a zone of contemplation, confrontation, exchange, debate, and collective understanding of topics which cannot be treated simply, and whose emotional and moral, human and divine consequences require larger perspectives.

New Mexico is also the birthplace of the atomic bomb, the most poisonous and destructive force unleashed in human history. Nuclear weapons are also the result of a high-level engagement with invisible worlds, forces of the universe, human ingenuity and endurance, and extraordinary intelligence, if not wisdom. Since the first test blast at Alamogordo on the morning of June 16, 1945, and the subsequent dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests, swathing the earth in nuclear fallout and radioactive residue. The results have transformed our world forever, our bodies, and our minds.

Atomic history as told from Santa Fe must acknowledge indigenous cosmologies and perspectives, the tragedies of Downwinders, scientists as moral and ethical beings, and the larger poetic and existential questions and healing processes that are best approached through music. When Wagner wrote Götterdämmerung, the image of the end of the world was a metaphor, a mythic construction. In our age, it is a very present reality.

We have reached a moment in nuclear history where it is again necessary to retell the origin myths of the birth of atomic power, and to reconsider the histories we have inherited, to open those histories to new voices and a deeper acknowledgement of the lives and peoples who have been and are now being affected, and a new weighing of human responsibilities in the scales of life and mass death.

So much of the Atomic Age has been handled not as history but as public relations. The Manhattan Project was conceived in secrecy: an entire branch of the U.S. Government that operated and continues to operate with no input from a democratic process and the knowledge and participation of its citizens. What was an extraordinary emergency undertaking in the darkest days of World War II has become standard operating procedure in the democracies of our time. This evening you will hear words which were formerly classified set for chorus and orchestra by John Adams, played and sung in full voice in the open air under the night sky of Santa Fe.

Many of the conversations in Doctor Atomic achieved immortality thanks to FBI agents and wiretaps. The libretto is woven from first-person accounts, surveillance reports, scientific data, and poetry. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty resorted to communicating with each other in a kind of code composed of citations from Baudelaire whose erotic and uncensored implications appalled and baffled their eavesdropping security detail.

Oppenheimer was a connoisseur of poetry; he named the Alamogordo test site “Trinity” after the John Donne sonnet “Batter My Heart.” As a human being wanting and not wanting to play Yahweh, he kept his copy of the Bhagavad Gita within reach in the left pocket of his jacket.

Finding voices for the women in this period was a specific challenge: the atomic wives were officially silent as they made an extraordinary number of babies, and the Pueblo Indian women who tended them have not been quoted in historical sources. Across the decades of mid- century America the poems of Muriel Rukeyser (who attended the School of Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side of New York City a few years behind Oppenheimer) created a rare and sustained feminist voice of conscience. Her words fill the thoughts, feelings, and night visions of Kitty Oppenheimer and Pasqualita.

The opera treats a single 24-hour period leading into the night of the first atomic test. The scientists have been working against the clock to ready a nuclear weapon ahead of the Nazis. With the defeat of Germany in the summer of 1945, and the imminent surrender of a deeply weakened Japan, the moral necessity of using the bomb to end World War II was questionable. In fact, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the last gestures of World War II, but the first gestures of the Cold War and the new global order which America maintains to this day.

John Adams sets the clocks of past, present, and future in motion — inexorably and confoundingly. We are the  tomorrow  that the scientists huddled in the drizzle were thinking of that night in Alamogordo. Housewives within a 50-mile radius saw a blinding flash in the sky in the early dawn. Many mothers gathered their children, not knowing what was happening, and knelt and prayed. The cancers came later.

And now we have to add the name of another Japanese city to atomic history: Fukushima. New Mexico, where it all began, is an important place to advance new and deeper discussions of our atomic futures.

Peter Sellars has gained international renown his groundbreaking and transformative interpretations of artistic masterpieces and for collaborative projects with an extraordinary range of creative artists. He has staged operas all over the world and collaborated on the creation of many works with John Adams, including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and, most recently Girls of the Golden West at the San Francisco Opera in 2017.