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Review: With 'Doctor Atomic,' Santa Fe stages a nuclear tale as the opera of our time

Review: With 'Doctor Atomic,' Santa Fe stages a nuclear tale as the opera of our time
Ryan McKinny as Robert Oppenheimer awaits the first test of the atomic bomb in the Santa Fe Opera production of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic." (Ken Howard)

The weather was nervous-making that summer evening 73 years ago when the first atomic bomb was tested at a remote desert site a little more than 200 miles south of here. An unpredictable warm air mass capable of producing a violent thunderstorm could blow radiation fallout to nearby populations. Lightning, some scientists feared, might trigger a cosmic chain reaction igniting the Earth’s atmosphere.

Just such a violent desert thunderstorm came out of nowhere Thursday night during a Santa Fe Opera performance of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” which dramatizes and provides uniquely essential insight into the most disquieting scientific event in history.

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The outdoor opera house is only partly protected from the elements. When the night is clear and the back of the stage is open to the enchanting desert, as it is in this production, you can see the distant twinkling lights of the Los Alamos laboratories. There, the bomb was developed in top secrecy during World War II in a rush to beat the Nazis to nuclear weaponry, and it’s where atomic weapons are still being produced. You are, operatically and in actual fact, there.

The test at the Trinity site had to go off as scheduled the early morning of July 16, 1945. Germany had recently surrendered to the Allies, and that day, President Truman was to meet with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in Potsdam, Germany. The war still raged in the Pacific, although there was no longer a clear need to overpower Japan with the most deadly force ever devised. Truman instead wanted the Russians to quake at our capacity to be the first superpower.

Leslie Groves, the Army general in charge of the project, demanded that the military branch’s Caltech-trained top meteorologist forecast a favorable time for the detonation that day or he would hang. At 5:30 a.m., the plutonium bomb produced a blinding light minutes before dawn, making it the first double sunrise in history.

A lot has changed in 73 years. This may be the nuclear age, but we still can’t fully predict storms in this part of the world. Santa Fe’s opera-goers know to check their weather apps, and the odds favored a mild evening. It was warm and pleasant as the audience quietly and solemnly took its seats while members of neighboring pueblos performed a sacred Corn Dance.

Nothing stopped a performance of the most significant, I’d say the greatest, opera of our time.


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Peter Sellars, the opera’s librettist and director of the San Francisco Opera premiere of the piece in 2005, has rethought “Doctor Atomic” for Santa Fe. There was no need for sets, when we were already in situ. This was Native American land, and Sellars wanted to acknowledge that to the audience. (To be certain of the director’s sacred ceremonial bona fides, the tribes first sent elders to Walt Disney Concert Hall last spring to attend Sellars’ ritualistic Los Angeles Master Chorale production of Orlando di Lasso’s 16th century sacred motet, “Lagrime di San Pietro.”)

At the end of the Corn Dance, lightning suddenly lighted up the sky. The atmosphere became infused with static as the recorded crackling of 1940s airplanes was piped around the theater. Thunder crashed, echoed by the startlingly portentous orchestral discharge that opens the opera. The wind picked up. Then, the deluge. The temperature dropped from the upper 80s to the 50s in no time.

Throughout the nearly 90-minute first act, rain blew onto the stage from the sides and the rear. The orchestra thinned out as violinists fled to protect their precious instruments. To remain ever mindful that the bomb was developed on sacred land, Native American dancers, choreographed by Emily Johnson, were ever present on what had became a dangerously slippery stage.

Nothing could stop the making and detonating of the bomb. Nothing has been able to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons since. And nothing stopped a performance of the most significant, I’d say the greatest, opera of our time.

This may have been no place to appreciate the Wagnerian intricacy and magnificence of some of Adams’ most astonishing orchestral writing. There are commercial recordings and videos available for that. But if you want to know what the opera felt like, what it means and why the world is the way it is, this was the place to be.

In a radically original concept, “Doctor Atomic” chronicles a 24-hour period beginning with adrenaline-rushing young scientists led by the enigmatic physicist Robert Oppenheimer as they prepare the test. The drama unfolds with documentary authenticity, the libretto setting the recently declassified documents, while the highly literate Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, reveal their inner feelings through poetry with which they identified in real life. Oppenheimer named the Trinity site after a poem by John Donne.

There is thus the conflict of idealism, arrogance and gnawing worry that technology has a life of its own that may in the end be antithetical to life as we know it. Its destructive power, moreover, is being produced on land that is sacred to its indigenous population.

In San Francisco, Sellars reproduced the look of the labs and evoked the desert. A replica of the bomb hung over the stage. In Santa Fe, the stage was mostly bare, and what now hung over it was a large sphere with a mirror-like surface. The cast dressed in modern clothes.

This was no longer enactment of the past but a consideration of the present. We don’t know what the weapons being made a short drive away look like, hence the sphere. We don’t know what the technology we make today will do to civilization. But we have almost three quarters of a century of doomsday scenarios to contemplate. Sellars put onstage a group of “downwinders,” members of the population downwind from the blast; all have cancer.

This was no longer enactment of the past but a consideration of the present.


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The cast is exceptional. Other evenings probably offered better opportunities to admire the singers (the performance Thursday was the fourth of six running through Aug. 16), although there have reportedly been other cold, wet, combustive nights.

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Ryan McKinny’s Oppenheimer has a wry, wiry, brittle brilliance. The storm had begun to die down for his ferocious aria, “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” which ends the first act, but its fury remained inside McKinny, to be released all over again.

In Julia Bullock’s Cassandra-wise Kitty, the struggle for meaning had a thrilling, emotional vitality, and hers is a performance worthy of the Santa Fe Opera annals. The lovemaking between Oppie and Kitty took place as the stage was pelted by wind and rain as stagehands discreetly mopped behind them. Their electric eroticism appeared instigated by, but then went beyond, the weather.

With a cavernously deep mezzo-soprano, Meredith Arwady, Kitty’s Tewa housekeeper, channels the spirit of the land. Daniel Okulitch’s fearsome Groves, Tim Mix’s brittle meteorologist Frank Hubbard and Andrew Harris’ confrontational Edward Teller, Oppie’s nemesis, all brought believable traces to their characters. The chorus plays a key role that included providing a delicious account of the workings of the atom. Matthew Aucoin conducts with ferocity.

“Doctor Atomic” does not end with the detonation but a prolonged countdown. Sirens wailed on loudspeakers all around us; in the desert setting, they seemed utterly real. We waited and waited, Adams’ score entering surreal realms. But there is no climax, just the distant sounds of Japanese voices to remind where this bomb’s next visit will be.

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What’s next is for us to decide. And there is no better place to begin than at the source, which has now, thanks to Adams and Sellars, been opened up as never before.

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