Metropolitan Opera's "Doctor Atomic'

The men who made the bomb:
The operatic version, and the truth

Finley as Oppenheimer: A scientist who loved John Donne. (Photo: Ken Howard.)
Finley as Oppenheimer: A scientist who loved John Donne. (Photo: Ken Howard.)

    Doctor Atomic is as accurate a documentary about the invention of the atomic bomb as Oliver Stone’s film JFK is about the Kennedy assassination. Which is to say, it is not.

    A new production of this opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars opened at the Metropolitan Opera this month and will be shown in movie theaters November 8. The first scene reveals scientists at work in cubicles, identified with photographs of the actual people. By thus showing reality, the opera invites us to note what’s not quite true. Sellars based his libretto on historical records, but he chose selectively.

    Greater weight is given to arguments against the bomb while those who advocate its use are portrayed as tense and nervous. J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example, is described by General Leslie Groves as "our high-strung director," about to have a breakdown. The implication is that Oppenheimer is grappling with his conscience. In truth, Oppenheimer developed reservations afterwards, but his fear at the time was that the explosion might be too weak.

    Sellars and Adams may be justified in thinking, as they seem to do, that the bomb shouldn’t have been used. But it’s misleading when they imply widespread doubts among the scientists at the time. The overwhelming feeling among those men was that the bomb would shorten the war and save lives. I know this from conversations with some of them.

Scientists— and refugees from Hitler

    My wife (who is from New Mexico) and I visited Los Alamos in 1993 for the 50th anniversary of the start of the Manhattan Project. My proximity, as well as my interest in the subject, emboldened me to seek out these scientists, including Oppenheimer’s closest friends.

    The men who led the project were then in their 20s and 30s. Many were refugees from Europe who believed that Hitler was at work on his own atomic bomb. They were scared, and they were also enthusiastic about developing and using this new weapon.

    When the first small shipment of plutonium— the raw material needed for the bomb— arrived at Los Alamos, the theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf held a few grains of the sand-like brownish metal in the palm of his hand. That wasn’t smart thing to do, he told me, but he was so excited to be working with it. (It apparently had no detrimental effect on him. He was 86 years old, and healthy, when we spoke, and he lived to age 93.)

Why didn’t the scientists stop?

    America produced the bomb because Germany was thought to be developing one. So when Germany surrendered, why didn't the scientists stop? According to physicist Murray Peshkin, "We had designed a weapon that would end the war, and boy, did we want it to work. Partly to force Japan to surrender, and partly to show that all of our work was not in vain." Added the Nobel laureate Robert Wilson: "To have asked us to pull back at that moment would have been unrealistic and unfair."

    I heard about only one scientist who asked to leave the project after Germany’s defeat. That was Joe Rotblat, and he left for personal reasons, not because of compunctions against using the bomb: He traveled from Los Alamos to Poland after it was liberated to try to find his family, only to discover that the Nazis had exterminated his wife and her parents.

    Oppenheimer himself was enthusiastic about sunsets, martinis, and spicy Southwestern food. He partied late but came to work early every morning. Colleagues told me how warm and supportive he was. Even Edward Teller, who became antagonistic later, said Oppie was great at cajoling, humoring and soothing people’s feelings. This side of him is missing in the opera and in most histories.

An accessible opera

    Setting aside the historical problems with Sellars’s libretto, his opera is an interesting discourse on moral issues and, at times, an exciting story. In his use of orchestra and voices, this may be Adams’s most accomplished opera. It’s certainly his most accessible. Electronic effects and the sounds of rain and thunder enhance the orchestra without overwhelming it. And quiet instrumentation supports solo voices better than in many modern compositions.

    The cast is solid, with Finley standing out above all others. And in the pit, Alan Gilbert draws excellent and richly colored sound from the Met orchestra. The production by Penny Woolcock focuses on the essentials: the people, the bomb and an abstract depiction of New Mexican mountains.

    The opera’s duets between Oppenheimer and his wife are arty, with obscure lyrics, but they’re historically accurate: Those two really did discuss the Sanskrit holy book The Bhagavad Gita and 17th-Century metaphysical poetry like John Donne’s. The opera’s major aria for Oppenheimer is Donne’s sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." Baritone Gerald Finley, excellent throughout the opera, here has a spectacular scene.

    Kitty Oppenheimer’s big aria in the second act is less effective. Sasha Cooke sings well, but her music and the lyrics meander. Some of the most affecting moments of the opera occur when Kitty and her Navajo maid, Pasqualita (beautifully sung by Curtis graduate Meredith Arwady) put the children to bed and wonder if all the scientist-fathers are safe.

    The scientist Robert Wilson, then 28 years old, is shown circulating a petition asking the president to notify Japan before dropping a bomb. Wilson in real life said that Oppenheimer recruited him with talk about a "magic mountain" in New Mexico, with great scenery, the outdoor life, the best men working together, and the unlimited resources at their disposal. He told Wilson it would be "one large family, working together to win the war."

Plutonium in a valise

    In July 1945 an 80-pound core of plutonium was removed from a safe at Los Alamos, separated into pieces and fitted into valises for the trip down to the test site. Robert Bacher, along with Louis Slotin and Philip Morrison, drove the pieces in a sedan, with one security car ahead and one behind. "I remember thinking about what an extraordinary thing it was to be driving along there in just an ordinary car,” Bacher told me, “and yet we were carrying the core of the first atomic bomb."

    More than 100 colleagues put dollar bills into a pool with their guesses about how large the explosion would be. No one that I spoke to feared that the explosion would kill them. On the contrary, they feared that the blast might be disappointingly small. If it were weak, their work would have been in vain. Oppenheimer chain-smoked and drank coffee. Edward Teller rubbed extra suntan lotion on his face, afraid of being burned by the explosion. He had made the largest prediction of blast size.
    Hans Bethe and Viki Weisskopf told me how they went to Ground Zero the next day in a jeep to capture samples of the radioactive soil. The desert sand had been pulverized and melted so that an area about the size of a football field was transformed into a mirror of green glass.

The voice of a Japanese child

    The opera ends after the test explosion in New Mexico. Then the recorded voice of a Japanese child reminds us of the destruction caused by the bomb. But not enough attention is given to reasons for using the bomb, such as the fact that Japanese suicide bombers were killing American sailors. Many people criticized Adams when, in The Death of Klinghoffer, he devoted equal time to the voices of Palestinian terrorists and to their victims. I wish he’d given equal time here to the scientist— for dramatic reasons, as well as for historical balance.

    Ultimately Adams and Sellars have created an opera in which moral dilemmas are examined as part of a good adventure story. The libretto creates suspense, even though we know what the outcome will be. This is no small accomplishment.

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