Sunday, January 20, 2008

Doctor Atomic

In the last throes of childlessness, we took ourselves out to the Lyric Opera of Chicago last night for the closing performance of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, a stunning performance piece about Trinity and the dawn of the nuclear age. Before the opera began we were treated to a lecture by Peter Sellars, the director and dramaturg, an elfin figure in a rainbow-colored Nehru jacket, David Lynch's hair, and a stiff brown glove on one hand which I belated recognized as an allusion to Dr. Strangelove and Sellars' namesake. You can get an example of his lyrical rhetorical style (and a few clips of the music) here (scroll down). Sellars made a passionate case for the excesses of opera not simply as Wagnerian Gesamstkunstwerk but as providing space and time for both intense emotion and intense reflection: he finds it the most appropriate medium for dealing with overwhelming and epochal events. Thus this documentary opera, in which the chorus sings lines explaining the construction of explosive lenses—but this documentary is infused with music and a great deal of poetry. As Sellars explained, and as we subsequently heard, the lyrics given to the character of Oppenheimer's wife Kitty (sung poignantly by soprano Jessica Rivera) are taken from the poetry of Muriel Rukeyeser, because history has silenced the real woman, though she was apparently a scientist in her own right. The character of Oppenheimer himself is represented singing back to his wife in lines taken from Baudelaire (lines in which the speaker is continually ravished by the sense of smell: a level of sensuality that further complicates our image of the emaciated, chain-smoking physicist), and, in the tragic aria that closes Act One—one of the truest theatrical experiences I've ever had of pity and of fear—Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14". Sellars and Adams bring in poetry to represent the secret (literally, the classified) subjectivities of highly intelligent and educated people at the center of perhaps the greatest ethical disaster in history.

The opera is all but inert, dramatically: everything builds toward "the shot," the Trinity test of July 16, 1945. We know exactly what's going to happen (as Sellars pointed out, in Greek drama, the place where the polis considered the most terrible questions of human life, the suspense of what might happen is entirely beside the point), and yet there's a terrible tension that builds and builds on the back of Adams' apocalyptic score. A young graduate student urges Oppenheimer to sign a letter to the President opposing the use of the bomb on humans and Oppenheimer declines, telling him (rightly) that the President will never see such a letter. A saturnine Edward Teller speculates about the creation of "the Super" (the hydrogen bomb) and warns of the possibility that the bomb might create intense enough heat to actually ignite the atmosphere and destroy the planet (he is proven mathematically wrong, but still...!). The military supervisor of the project, General Groves, confesses his inability to remain on a diet to skinny, politically suspect Oppenheimer. Nothing happens—but everything on the stage and in the music is building to that terrible moment when the era of humanity's possible sudden extinction began—an era that has not ended. The strongest counter-voice to the surge of militarized science is raised by desperate, alcoholic, Rukeyeser-spouting Kitty ("the only sane one," Sellars said wryly)—banished along with all the other women associated with the project to a site 200 miles from Alamogordo—and the Pueblo Indians who worked as maids and janitors at Los Alamos, affirming the continuity of life—the "cloud-flower" of the rain blooming north, west, and south—as a very different and terrible flower prepares to sprout.

The end, or the trailing, of the opera comes with the shot: the entire cast lying on the stage face down, covering their heads; a cataclysmic surge of chords; a human scream (the first I can recall genuinely to curdle my blood) followed by the soft voice of a woman speaking words in Japanese. And the long silence of a stunned audience awakening from imagining the dark, forgotten roots of our present moment. From Muriel Rukeyeser's "Easter Eve 1945," sung by Kitty in the dark moments before the darker dawn:
Whatever world I know shines ritual death,
wide under this moon they stand gathering fire,
fighting with flame, stand fighting in their graves.
All shining with life as the leaf, as the wing shines,
the stone deep in the mountain, the drop in the green wave.
Lit by their energies, secretly, all things shine.
Nothing can black that glow of life.

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