The glowing menace of the mushroom cloud mixed genius with death.
John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” shows the father of nuclear weapons in all his complexity; the charismatic leader, the cold calculation and the horror at what his work had wrought.
The dramatic piece opens for the first time in the state of the bomb’s gestation and birth at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, July 14. The opera tracks a 24-hour period leading into the night of the first atomic test.
First commissioned as an “American Faust” by the San Francisco Opera in 2005, Robert Oppenheimer’s story bears little resemblance to the pact with the devil that Goethe imagined. These young scientists saw themselves as heroes in a race to save the world from Hitler.
“(Oppenheimer) was a complex guy,” said bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who portrays the director of the Manhattan Project. “He was also kind of a spiritual person. He was kind of an amateur philosopher.
“I think at first he was driven by his ego. I think he struggled. Once the bomb was dropped in Japan, he became an advocate of disarmament.”
Isolated in Los Alamos and forbidden to talk about her husband’s project, Kitty Oppenheimer worked on her doctoral degree in botany and hosted cocktail parties for the scientists’ wives. She felt professionally stymied within a scientific pressure cooker.
“There were a few of the wives who were clued in” to the project’s purpose, said soprano Julia Bullock, who sings the role of Kitty.
“She was definitely affected by it,” Bullock said. “She had her second child there. She went away for three months, because she needed a break from Los Alamos.
“She was erratic; she was also a raging alcoholic,” Bullock said. “She was very frustrated.”
In Peter Sellars’ libretto, Kitty sings dreamy visions of Muriel Rukeyser’s feminist poetry.
The director lifted many of the couple’s conversations directly from declassified FBI wiretaps, surveillance reports and poetry. Oppenheimer and Kitty resorted to communicating with each other in their own erotic code composed of citations from Baudelaire, much to their eavesdroppers’ bewilderment.
The desperate sense of spiritual loss Oppenheimer expresses in John Dunne’s sonnet “Batter My Heart” is a projection into his future tragic awareness of the implications of his “gadget.”
Kitty “seems to represent the conscience or the emotional impact it’s having on all the psyches of all the people there,” Bullock said.
“By the time the Germans surrendered, they were still working on it.”
Then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan endured not just the end of World War II, but the first gestures of the Cold War.