Beginning on July 14, the Santa Fe Opera will perform composer John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. This summer’s performances mark the first time the opera is produced in New Mexico, the epicenter of the opera. Doctor Atomic concentrates on the weeks just before the July 1945 Trinity Test, the first test of a nuclear weapon. With a libretto by Peter Sellars, the opera is a powerful interpretation in words and music of the scientific, political, moral, and ethical tensions of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.
To complement the opera, the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) has launched an online interpretive program, “Doctor Atomic Trail.” The program features more than 30 audio/visual vignettes on Manhattan Project sites in New Mexico, with firsthand accounts from Manhattan Project participants and perspectives from historians.
The program is available online on AHF’s “Ranger in Your Pocket” website (www.RangerInYourPocket.org). Users worldwide can watch “Doctor Atomic Trail” on personal devices such as smartphones and tablets, or on computers at home. Vignettes from the program are also featured in the new “Atomic Histories” exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum. Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, comments, “The program should be a valuable resource for opera fans coming to see Doctor Atomic and thousands of other tourists to Santa Fe and New Mexico this summer. Listening to the voices of the participants makes a human connection and provides new insights into the making of the atomic bomb.”
“Doctor Atomic Trail” includes the train station in Lamy, where weary Manhattan Project recruits arrived after days of travel. Army personnel picked them up for the ten-mile trip to Santa Fe, where they then faced another 35-mile trip to Los Alamos. Rebecca Bradford Diven remembered wearing her best clothes when she was met by members of the Women’s Army Corps on the dusty, desolate station platform: “I dressed with care, a little pillbox with a veil, my precious nylons, high heels. I later discovered they said, ‘She’s never going to last here.’”
The program also features 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, where Dorothy McKibbin, the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” oriented scientists and workers who reported to her offices. McKibbin reassured them, issued passes, assigned housing, and provided transportation to Los Alamos. “These young husbands and wives would come into our office with their babies on their shoulder,” she recalled. “We would say, ‘Hello!’ and ‘How are you?’ And take care of their baggage and see they got a ride up to ‘the Hill.’”
The Santa Fe section includes the La Fonda on the Plaza hotel, whose bar became a favorite watering hole for Manhattan Project participants seeking a respite from the stress of the project. La Fonda “was this little oasis of amenities, of a bathtub, hot water, and a good meal,” describes author Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of key Manhattan Project administrator James B. Conant. “The very words ‘La Fonda’ had a magical quality to them.”
The program describes “Bathtub Row” at Los Alamos, where top-echelon scientists resided during the Manhattan Project. In one vignette about the Oppenheimer House, where he and his family lived, laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled, “We lived about a third of a mile from the laboratory. I would try to get to the laboratory on normal days about eight, and take our son to the nursery school on the way.”
The Manhattan Project had a profound impact on northern New Mexico. The arrival of the Los Alamos laboratory displaced local residents, including homesteading families. Nevertheless, many members of local Pueblo and Hispano communities worked at Los Alamos from its inception in early 1943. Short of laborers, the Army Corps of Engineers recruited local residents to help build and maintain the laboratory and residences. Hundreds served as construction workers, janitors, housekeepers, technicians, clerks, mess hall staff, mail couriers, maids, and in other roles.
The project includes excerpts from Willie Atencio and David Schiferl’s collection of oral history interviews with northern New Mexico residents. Some workers welcomed steady, well-paying jobs at the laboratory. Others expressed concerns over environmental contamination, health effects, and disruptions to traditional ways of life. Oral historian Peter Malmgren, who interviewed 150 Los Alamos workers for his book Los Alamos Revisited, sums up the diverging perspectives: “The people who dodged the bullet and were able to live and retire from the lab without being seriously ill had a lot of positive reasons to praise it. For other people, a lot of suffering, a lot of loss, a lot of pain. The lab has meant life and the lab has meant death in full measure, both ways.”
Later this summer, AHF will publish a new “Ranger in Your Pocket” program on the Trinity Test. The program will provide an overview of the test’s significance and legacies, including the ranchers who were forced off their lands around the Trinity Site and the downwinders’ concerns about the health impacts of the test. AHF plans to expand both the “Doctor Atomic Trail” and Trinity Test programs in 2019 to incorporate additional information and perspectives.
The Santa Fe performance of this powerful opera is an opportunity to reflect on the Manhattan Project and its impacts. More information about Doctor Atomic is available on the Santa Fe Opera’s website. The full interviews from the “Doctor Atomic Trail,” including rare 1960s recordings of Oppenheimer and McKibbin, can be accessed on AHF and the Los Alamos Historical Society’s “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website (www.ManhattanProjectVoices.org).
The Atomic Heritage Foundation thanks the Los Alamos Historical Society, the New Mexico History Museum, and La Fonda on the Plaza for their partnership on the project. AHF looks forward to working with our local partners to develop additional educational resources and programming on the Manhattan Project and its legacies today.