Doctor Atomic

I went to see and hear John Adams’ recent opera Doctor Atomic at the ENO last night. One of my physicist-companions was my friend, fellow blogger and cosmologist Peter Coles, and he has already applied his greater musical knowledge to the task, so I won’t attempt an overall review.

In short, Doctor Atomic is the story of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who managed the Manhattan Project and, therefore, the creation of the American atomic bomb. The opera concentrates on the day or so before the first atomic test. But we can’t help knowing, indeed are supposed to know, what comes next: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, first, and then the cold war during which Oppenheimer himself was subsequently blacklisted.

The Libretto by Adams’ collaborator Peter Sellars is almost entirely assembled from external sources: real Manhattan Project memos, poetry, and, famously, the Bhagavad-Gita, although it consciously eschews Oppenheimer most famous quotation, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, on seeing the first explosion.

The centerpiece of the opera is the magnificent ending of the first act, Oppenheimer literally in the shadow of the device — “the gadget”, as it was known by the workers at the Manhattan Project — that his management has brought to being, trying to come to terms with it. “Batter my heart, three-person’d god”, he sings, from one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. At first, this is puzzling: as one of my operagoing companions pointed out, why would the (culturally) Jewish Oppenheimer sing this avowedly religious song? But wait: “three-person’d God” — Trinity, chosen, too, as the name of the site of that first test. Who or what is Oppenheimer addressing?

In addition to Oppenheimer, a couple of other physicists take important roles. Edward Teller starts out as a sympathetic character, puzzlingly so given his eventual rabid, almost violent anti-communism and his historical place as Oppenheimer’s nemesis, but by the end we see and hear the germs of a plausibly massive ego beginning to leak out from its purely scientific beginnings. And we see Robert Wilson idealistically attempting to get the scientists’ opinion counted in the political and military decision-making. Years later, Wilson would himself be the architect (literally) of Fermilab in Illinois. When it was being planned, he was asked in a Senate hearing what good the proposed particle accelerator would be for National defense. His reply: ”It has nothing to do with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.”

(And next week we’ve got something from elsewhere on the cultural landscape which features a character with a similar name.)