Doctor Atomic's Explosive Opera

11-Mar-09 2:37 PM by
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The 20th century witnessed some horrific acts, the consequences of which are felt to this day. Perhaps the most significant was the Manhattan Project, which, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, developed the atomic bomb that was later used against Japan, bringing an end to World War II. Whether science was used that day for good or evil, to preserve life or end it, is something to be considered by all humanity — but perhaps no more concretely than by the scientists responsible for creating the bomb.

Scientific American's Science Talk podcast recently attended a presentation by five surviving scientists who were assigned to Los Alamos. Their musings are more anecdotal than introspective, which disappointed me, as I would've preferred the historical gathering be used to preserve insights of greater import. But not being a history buff, I may've overlooked earlier opportunities these figures had to expound on such matters.

A less direct but more dramatic interpretation of their works has recently been performed as the opera Doctor Atomic. Not a lighthearted musical, this production is a serious and fully sung artistic rendition of the month leading up to July 15th, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was detonated in what was known as the Trinity test. The full three-and-a-half-hour performance has concluded its run at the New York Metropolitan Opera and is currently playing at the London Coliseum through March 20th. A filmed recording of the live production aired on PBS in December and will likely be available on home video before too long. Here's a trailer:

Taken as a dramatic narrative, I'm surprised by how good a fit this story is to this medium. As the Scientific American host put it, "… this moment in history is really so suitable for an opera because it's almost… Wagnerian in this intent… These people are trying to work together to create this doomsday weapon. It's almost like a fictional story." I hope the opera does these men justice, and I look forward to seeing and judging it for myself. In the meantime, the only related DVD release thus far is Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic. Check it out, as well as the aforementioned podcast, which also interviews Patricia Steiner, a mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus who performed in the domestic production.

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