On Saturday, January 5, 2008, a group organized by the Atomic Heritage Foundation enjoyed a matinee performance of “Doctor Atomic” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Written and directed by Peter Sellars and composed by John Adams, the opera is a very powerful interpretation in words and music of the tensions--scientific, political, moral and ethical--that were felt by those who gave birth to the atomic bomb. Set in Los Alamos and Alamogordo, it focuses on the dramatic 24-hours before the detonation of the Trinity test “gadget” in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945.
A major turning point in the Manhattan Project, the Trinity test confirmed that round-the-clock work at Los Alamos and other sites across the country to produce an atomic bomb had been successful. It also spurred a number of scientists to raise questions about the morality of the bomb. “Doctor Atomic” coveys the intensity of the moment as the atomic age is about to be born, focusing on a small cast of characters, including physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, and her Tewa (Native American) maid, Pasqualita; General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineer District; weatherman Jack Hubbard; and scientists Edward Teller and Robert Wilson.
Mr. Sellars created the libretto for the opera primarily using original Manhattan Project sources, including memoirs, government documents, and scientific journals. He also included excerpts from poetry, such as Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, and John Donne. It was Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d god,” that inspired Oppenheimer to name the New Mexico test site “Trinity.”
On Friday, January 4, members of the Atomic Heritage Foundation group learned more about “Doctor Atomic” and its music in a private seminar with Lyric Opera educator Jesse Gram. In addition, librettist and director Peter Sellars joined the group afterwards at its reception and dinner at the Rhapsody Restaurant.
“Doctor Atomic” was so compelling and the outing so successful that we are planning another one this fall to see “Doctor Atomic” at the Met in New York City. We hope to get a block of seats to a matinee performance in November or December. Stay tuned for details. For more about the Lyric Opera of Chicago and its production of “Doctor Atomic,” click here .