The story of how an opera came to be made from the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, as recounted by John Adams in his new memoir, began with a call to the composer from the San Francisco opera, asking if he’d like to do something for their series of productions based on the “Faust” story. It’s not an inappropriate metaphor, but I feel that the best way to see Oppenheimer and his story — and now having seen both the SF Opera and Metropolitan Opera productions of “Doctor Atomic” — is that he is Prometheus, empowered by the government to bring nuclear fire to mankind, and then ruined by that same government when they came to distrust his own power.
That’s a story for another day. The story in the opera covers a brief period just prior to the test of the “gadget” at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and literally ends at the moment of that explosion, just before Oppenheimer uttered that phrase (his own mistranslation — the actual text in the Bhagavad Gita is “I am Time, destroyer of worlds” — but true nonetheless). In the narrative scheme of human existence, Prometheus trumps Faust in terms of importance. The latter seeks knowledge, but his use of it is limited to his own petty humanity, while Prometheus gave us power! And Oppenheimer gave us the power to wipe mankind off the face of the earth with the fire of existence itself. In the competition over who’s god is bigger, the players are really fighting over scraps, in America the Christian God is not even in second place; Mammon has a firm hold there. The god that America worships more than any other is Prometheus, who comes to us in the form of technology.
The Manhattan Project perverted so much. The current hagiography over The Greatest Generation and The Good War has a dark hole at its center where the slaughter of civilians lies. It is properly moral to not say war is great, even if it may be necessary, and to do so by pointing out what is so awful about it, especially in contemporary times; the industrial slaughter of life, and, since before the 20th century, concentration camps and the deliberate killing of civilians. If the only justification for Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is winning, then that says everything about the morality of war. Instead we have the dangerous idea that everything America does is right, and so the actual consideration of rightness, or even wisdom, is thought treasonous. Also, historical memory is perverted into thinking that wars end with a final, unconditional surrender, when that is the exceptional moment in history. Wars end with exhaustion and irresolution. And we have Prometheus, who tells us that technology solves all problems and makes mankind better. Could he be the Trickster god?
Oppenheimer and Prometheus meat in Alan Moore’s Watchmen (coming someday to a theater near you), where the character of Doctor Manhattan is a direct amalgamation of the two; a physicist who is literally decomposed in an accident, and then reassembles himself as a perfect physical reflection of the unlimited power of this beautiful symbol: E=mc2. Like the bomb, he is all powerful and amoral, helping win the war in Vietnam and maintaining order more out of a sense of abstract, intellectual interest rather than any conviction.
Oppenheimer was not like that, of course, of at least not like that all the time. The Manhattan Project had a strategic goal and so was immune to moralizing, and for his part he naively felt that sharing the technological information immediately with the Soviet Union would forestall an arms race and enable international control of nuclear weapons. This balance, this tension between technical dedication, some sense of patriotism or at least defense of society, and moral reckoning is the essential nature of the opera. It is sung-through and Adams’ language is mostly semi-abstract; it is not atonal in the way of 12-tone music, but it resists tonal centers and cadences, and moves along in dreamlike fashion similar to “Pélleas et Melisande.” The music is not specifically adapted to characters, instead it brings the characters along with it towards the dramatic goal of the opera, like individuals caught helplessly in the flow of history, seeking to contribute to events around them by literally making their voices heard — the conception is much like Alban Berg, and this is the heights of Adams Romantic style. The effect is mellifluous, climaxing musically at the end of the first act, with Oppenheimer singing a wrenching setting of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God,“which in the two very different stagings of it I’ve seen proves itself one of the great moments in operatic literature.
The staging of the Met production, directed by Penny Woolcock, is very different than Peter Sellars’ original work, more concrete and narrative yet effectively abstract in that it seeks abstract means to convey the biggest questions of the opera, the ones that cannot be literally staged; meanings of work intended to produce death and destruction, the test itself. It is the staging of this great aria that the differences between the two productions can be clearly drawn. In San Francisco, Oppenheimer literally staggers around the stage, while behind him, enclosed in a curtain, hangs the bomb. At the end of his singing, he turns and goes back to the curtain, draws it enough so we have our first peek, and slips inside. On the Met stage, the bomb appears clearly, descending from the ceiling, and the stage is cleared of all but the character, and he sings, literally, in the shadow of the gadget, and then gazes up at it, mesmerized in some way. There is a feeling of awe and terror. In Adams’ memoir, he discusses the difficulties of staging this work, but I feel that Woolcock and the Met have solved them — the production is a musical, dramatic and emotional powerhouse. “Doctor Atomic” is not just an interesting contemporary opera, it is a great opera and belongs in the standard literature. It is one of the few works of music I can think of that means to evoke our Modern conception of the sublime, which is terrifying beauty. Regard, it is beautiful, and terrifying:
Working from memory, I detect some changes in the score from the original as well. The characterization of Kitty Oppenheimer was the weak spot originally, and that may have had a great deal to do with Adams writing the part originally for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She was a singer with exceptionally rare charisma, and Adams may have underwritten the part with her in mind. Certainly the part as sung now by Sasha Cooke is full and able to compare to the tremendous part of Oppenheimer, partly created and absolutely owned by Gerald Finley. His singing, his presence on stage, the music all present a question with no ready, easy answer, which is the only way to treat Oppenheimer and his endeavor. It was Oppenheimer’s genius that brought us the bomb, and his cultured personality that gave us the proper way to think of ourselves once we possessed it, as gods and destroyers. Those aren’t the only apt words for the Trinity test, though. One of Oppenheimer’s colleagues replied: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”