J. Robert Oppenheimer (atomicarchive.com)
On July 16, 1945, a team of scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer detonated the first atomic weapon in the New Mexican desert and ushered in the nuclear age. Seems portentous enough to build an opera around, and composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars did just that. Dr. Atomic was critically acclaimed when it debuted in San Francisco. In October, a new version, with a different director, was staged in New York.
But how did it all come together?
Wonders Are Many: The Making of Dr. Atomic, a documentary from Independent Lens, examines how Adams and Sellars created the opera. Check it out tonight at 9 on KERA TV (Channel 13).
Dr. Atomic ends before the drama we know from newsreels, books and museums – the desecration wrought by the bomb – begins. Instead, it focuses on the bubble-world created at the Trinity test site, where young scientists, government officials and military officers raced to detonate a device with powers they weren’t exactly sure they could control or predict. Like any workerbee caught up in history – or any of us facing a big project deadline at the office – the historic figures portrayed in Dr. Atomic are just as likely to obsess about their weight, their wife’s beautiful hair, the boss’s latest demand, or how the weather might upset their plans as they are to contemplate the repercussions of the task at hand.
The effect evokes Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the banality of evil. And Wonders are Many reinforces that with archival footage of the bomb’s devastation and interviews with some of those who did question what was happening.
Physicist Freeman Dyson, who knew Oppenheimer, observes that he never regretted building the bomb, until the end of his life. It was “in his last six months that he became human.” And Dyson isn’t surprised: “It’s natural that when people are still alive, you don’t talk about history.”
John Adams probably wouldn’t agree. The composer has said that opera must be about our lives (just as it was in Mozart’s time) to stay relevant. One quibble with the doc is that Adams or Sellars never get to close that circle; Dr. Atomic‘s context in recent political history comes to life, but its place in opera doesn’t. With opera companies and symphonies struggling to find new audiences and debating internally over the ratio of risky new works to classic warhorses, it’s worth discussing.
The film creates a loose parallel, tracking the development of the bomb and the creation of the opera. So there’s plenty here about process too. The libretto for Dr. Atomic is pulled from transcripts, once-classified documents and poetry. The result attracted lots of criticism, not addressed in the doc. But I love this idea of using collage, or sampling, to turn history into performance. (Another recent local example was the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of Steven Stucky and George Scheer’s August 4, 1964.) And the film reveals a little about how it happens – Sellars is actually filmed with scissors and paper, pasting the piece together. It reveals more about how Sellars works with the chorus and principals to put some emotional heft behind those words. In this video clip, Sellars rehearses the chorus, who portray workers at the site. “It should feel like you’re trapped for the next 50 years, wishing that night you could have said something,” he tells them.
If you caught the Metropolitan Opera’s HD screening of Dr. Atomic in local theaters, you’ll appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at how the opera was developed. And if you haven’t seen it – don’t fret. The film stands on its own AND it will be a great backgrounder for when KERA airs the Met’s Dr. Atomic Dec. 29.