13 November 2017
I Am Become Death
By Mark Tiarks
“DOCTOR ATOMIC STANDS AS A MAJOR ADDITION TO THE OPERATIC REPERTORY OF THIS NEW CENTURY, THE FIRST TO BE INAUGURATED WITH
THE SPECTER OF INSTANT DEATH VERY MUCH AROUND US.”
— THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
The opera takes place in June and July of 1945, moving inexorably from the Los Alamos National Laboratory to the first atomic bomb’s detonation at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico. Composer John Adams describes his musical inspiration as “the science-fiction movies of the 1950s. I remember how many started with some nuclear test in the desert…and the kind of fear that I felt growing up.” Peter Sellars’ text draws from declassified government documents, participant letters and interviews, and poetry by Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, and John Donne, as well as the Hindu Baghavad Gita and a hauntingly prophetic Native American song.
While Doctor Atomic is set against a historical background, its true subjects are moral obligation and ethical conflict. What are the larger responsibilities of scientists on the threshold of a potentially earth-shattering discovery? And of the politicians with the ability to order its use? Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer seems to push aside any doubts by relying on the wisdom of his superiors in Washington: “They have information which we do not possess.” Émigré scientist Leó Szilárd compares their situation to that of European scientists who failed to speak out against Hitler. Physicist Robert Wilson argues for a public viewing of the bomb test and the chance for Japan to surrender before its use in combat.
Visionary director Peter Sellars stages this new production of Doctor Atomic. Conductor Matthew Aucoin leads a cast featuring Ryan McKinny and Julia Bullock as Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, Ben Bliss as Robert Wilson, Meredith Arwady as Pasqualita, and Daniel Okulitch as General Leslie Groves. Doctor Atomic has received international acclaim since its premiere, with The New York Times calling it “The most complex and inventive of Mr. Adams’s works,” and The New Yorker hailing it as “not only an ominous score but also an uncommonly beautiful one. Scene after scene glows with strange energy.” Doctor Atomic promises to be even more powerful performed where you can gaze at the lights of Los Alamos just a few miles away while pondering its timely messages.