Last week Dear Wife Betty & I were out in San Francisco where we took in, as they say, Dr. Atomic at the San Francisco Opera. It’s about the Manhattan Project on the eve of the test detonation of the first bomb in 1945; in particular it’s about the moral ambiguity of the bombmaking enterprise, layered on top of deep uncertainty about whether the thing would actually explode (and perhaps ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth).
The composer is John Adams, and the musical style is modern quasi-minimalist. The director is Peter Sellars, and the staging is Sellarian, with giant stylized props representing the bomb-test tower, the remote dry mountains, the physics laboratories; even Mr. & Mrs. Oppenheimer’s marriage bed. During most of the opera, the characters Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson and Leslie Grove sing about bomb designs and yields, war strategy, sin, physics and whether lightning from a desert storm will accidentally set off the bomb before they can set if off on purpose. In the second act two women sing poetic nonsense over a crib; Kitty Oppenheimer the while holding a highball glass in one hand and a grasping the neck of a mostly empty bottle of rye with the other. Throughout both acts there is a large chorus dressed in Army fatigues frantically moving about hither and thither as Oppenheimer, dressed like David Bryne in an oversized zoot suit, broods metaphysically, spouting Baudelaire and John Donne.
Also there were dancers who appeared at random times and did balletic stuff like you used to see on shows like Solid Gold in the days before MTV. (Betty said that they looked like the Maoist dancers you used to see on the Ed Sullivan show, only without the long ribbons on sticks).
Despite many misgivings, I liked Dr. Atomic a lot.
After all, how often does one get to see a full dress, high, arch, 80-piece orchestra, operatic treatment of the heart-numbing dread that is the essence of technoparanoia?
More impressions (and some spoilers) below the fold.