Dr. Atomic

An opera about the moral complexities of Hiroshima.

Dr. Atomic, the transfixing new opera by the composer John Adams in collaboration with the director and librettist Peter Sellars, calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ lines in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” The opera, which had its premiere in San Francisco on Oct. 1 (and closes Oct. 22), centers on the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at the culmination of his leadership of the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., that designed and constructed the first atomic bombs. It is set at Los Alamos, at the end of June 1945, several weeks before the first nuclear explosive was tested at Alamogordo, N.M., and then at the test site during the anxious, rainstormy hours preceding the detonation at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945.

Both Sellars and Adams, whose previous collaborations include Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, were drawn to the story by the moral tensions that suffuse it. Sellars, the more socially committed of the two, sees relevance in the tensions to the contemporary war against terror. “We are strangely underinformed about what is going on and what is at stake,” he says in the program notes. “Opera is able to go inside where the headlines aren’t going,” by which he means that art can reveal the moral complexity in great events.

To get inside, Adams and Sellars often bypass historical truth. Not that they ignore the historical record. On the contrary. Sellars has crafted the libretto in part from poetry, including Baudelaire and John Donne, both among Oppenheimer’s favorite writers, and in part from a potpourri of historical news—adaptations from histories, memoirs, and project documents, including a declassified petition from some 70 scientists urging that the bomb not be dropped on the Japanese without warning. The news does lend the work a degree of historical verisimilitude. But the opera’s intended moral force rests partly on a debatable premise: that the bomb need not have been used because Japan was already de facto defeated, and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated not primarily to end the war in the Pacific but to keep the Soviets in line (an interpretation to which the opera briefly alludes).

Many scholars have disputed that interpretation—for example Barton Bernstein, at Stanford. A demonstration might have helped end the war without the atomic bombings, especially if the Allies had responded to Japanese peace feelers in midsummer 1945. But it might not have, given that, even after Nagasaki, the surrender of Japan required the emperor’s intervention against the military. As for moral complexities, every day the war was prolonged brought the deaths of at least 50 Americans in the Pacific theater and—as a result of continuing conventional bombing of cities—thousands of Japanese.

Still, art deals best with complex historical truths less by addressing the intricacies of grave events than by attending to the attitudes, emotions, and interactions of individuals. Adams and Sellars have wisely concerned themselves with the people at Los Alamos. Even so, Dr. Atomic is not a conventional melodrama, in which the characters develop in encounters with each other; it is a drama that explores the moral positions its protagonists represent. Or, I should say, the protagonists its creators have fashioned from the real historical figures to serve their artistic purposes.

The real Kitty Oppenheimer was ferociously ambitious for her husband to succeed in forging the bomb, for all the worldly reasons a wife might want her husband to succeed. In a reversal of the real Kitty’s character, Adams and Sellars make her the exemplar of the “eternal feminine.” This is an archetype that Adams takes from Goethe’s Faust, a devotee of love, children, and life who, as he told an interviewer, manifests “a deep moral awareness” of the bomb project’s consequences. She is joined in this representation by Pasqualitas, an invented Navajo nanny/maid who croons to Kitty’s cradled newborn daughter of fertility and harvest and the harmony of the earth. The female principle is advanced with an imaginative theatricality. But it is marred at points by heavy-handedness (for example, the director suspends the large sphere of the test bomb, wires protruding from its surface, over the cradle). More important, vesting the moral center of the story in embodiments of this archetype weakens the opera’s force. The eternal feminine is a stereotype, and an irrelevant one for the tens of thousands of women who had husbands, sons, or brothers serving in the Pacific theater. They rejoiced when the bomb suddenly ended the war because the turn of events gifted them with the continuation of life, love, and children.

But Dr. Atomic’s treatment of Robert Oppenheimer is for the most part essentially true to history and character. Early in the opera, Oppenheimer is informed by Edward Teller (who later became a father of the hydrogen bomb) of the petition from the 70 scientists, and he is urged passionately by Robert Wilson, a sensitive slip of a young physicist, that the power of the bomb should be demonstrated to the Japanese at a remote site. Oppenheimer rejects both recommendations. He admonishes Teller that scientists ought not to be indulging in “political pronouncements” and assures Wilson that officials in Washington have a far better grasp of how to end the war than do any scientists. Oppenheimer, gazing toward the sky, sings rapturously that he had explained to the officials the “tremendous” visual effect of an atomic bombing, “a brilliant luminescence rising to a height of up to 20,000 feet.”

The real Oppenheimer led a scientific panel that recommended against a demonstration of the bomb. He advised the military how the bomb should be dropped and detonated to maximize the destruction and terrifying visual effects of a nuclear explosion. On the evening after Hiroshima, the real Oppenheimer celebrated the event before a packed auditorium at Los Alamos, declaring that he was proud of what the laboratory had accomplished. Years later he said that he never regretted his role in developing the bomb.

Elsewhere, however, Adams and Sellars give us an Oppenheimer who is conflicted and troubled by the imminent ignition of the atomic fires. Oppenheimer had named the Alamogordo test “Trinity,” after the opening line in Donne’s Holy Sonnet No. 14: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” In Dr. Atomic’s most powerful aria, he sings the entire sonnet alone before the test bomb, which is silhouetted against a bright light shining through the yellowish canvas encasing the soaring test tower. He laments that though he loves God, he is “betrothed unto your enemy” and entreats him to,”Divorce me, untie or break that knot again.” Adams’ music has an “archaic” feel suggestive of classical solemnity, as he himself describes it in a recent interview. It underscores Oppenheimer’s tortured pleading, and so does the anguish in the voice of the lyric baritone Gerald Finley, who beats his breast with his fist, echoing the ritual gesture in the Jewish prayer for forgiveness on the day of atonement.

As in Oppenheimer’s aria, the art of Dr. Atomic overpowers its historical distortions and conceptual missteps, getting inside things by exploiting the capabilities of the operatic form. Teller, who was already ferociously eager to build a hydrogen bomb, is revealed as an amoral technocrat according to the music, declaratively ironic in its emotional flatness when he matter-of-factly ruminates upon the possibility that the test explosion might ignite the atmosphere. The staging and music form powerful images of the stakes in the bomb—for example, the chorus, kneeling and singing exultantly from the Bhagavad-Gita, another of Oppenheimer’s favorites, of “your shape Stupendous…/ Terrible with fangs” and Robert Wilson, prostrate, retching.

The opera ends with the test explosion. It is understatedly rendered with most of the cast down on their chests, awaiting the blast to the rising heartbeat rhythm of drums, then raising their heads to look into the intense red and yellow light, their faces awestruck. The music subsides into a silence that is broken intermittently by a Japanese voice repeating, “A drink of water, please.” This was the desperate request of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is Dr. Atomic’s artful reminder how men and women die every day for lack of attention to the consequences of waging wars that kill and wound the innocent.