Dr. Atomic Review - Lyric Opera of Chicago

The opera begins

This spellbinding production of Dr. Atomic is riveting, powerful and mystical. The ending of the story is so well known, it is difficult to imagine creating any level of suspense or foreboding within the opera.  In fact, the ending was so emotional and gripping that the audience sat in stunned silence for a few moments before the thunderous applause and standing ovations took over.  Hopefully viewers will not be discouraged by the modern music and deep subject matter, but will take the opportunity to be deeply moved by one of the most dramatic moments in history.

With music by John Adams and lyrics by Peter Sellars, the opera is a co-production of Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, and the Netherlands Opera.  Its premiere was at the San Francisco Opera in October 2005 where it was critically acclaimed. The European premiere was at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam in June 2007 and was very successful. Adams and Sellars have succeeded in taking dramatic historical moments and creating operas from them as in “Nixon in China”(1987) and “The Death of Klinghoffer”(1991). Adams notes “Doctor Atomic” is “longer and more complex than any of my pervious stage works”.  Peter Sellars suggests that this greater length, when the second act slows down, allows the viewer an opportunity to deeply experience the sense of isolation, pressure, and fear projected in the opera.

Einstein and Oppenheimer

The work engages the audience in the stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos involved in preparing to test the first atomic bomb and the test itself.  The first act takes place three weeks before the bomb, or “gadget” is to be tested and the second act is set early in the morning of July 15, 1945 before the test is scheduled to take place at the “Trinity” test ground.  

Working out the numbers

While the opera takes place in New Mexico, in reality much of the work leading to this moment took place at the University of Chicago.  A modest research project authorized by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 grew in 1942 to the Manhattan Project, a vast, top-secret effort that eventually involved thousands of scientists all over the country.  The University of Chicago’s Stagg Field (home of a former football team) was the site of the “atomic piles”.  Exactly 25 years after the start of the first sustained nuclear reaction, Dec. 2, 1967 at 3:36 pm University of Chicago dedicated the Henry Moore sculpture titled “Nuclear Energy”. 

Which Japanese cities to bomb

The real life characters explored in “ Dr. Atomic” are (as they appear) Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink), J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley), Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn), Kitty Oppenheimer (Jessica Rivera), General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens), Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena), Captain James Nolan (Roger Honeywell), Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady), Lieutenant Bush (W. Patrick Dunham) and Peter Oppenheimer (Aiden McGovern).  The cosmic forces of life and death play out before the audience with dramatic contrasts.  Oppenheimer wants to complete work on the bomb and feels it is necessary to use it, (My seat mate commented this was ego overtaking reason), Teller is skeptical about whether it will work as predicted, and Wilson wants to sign a petition to keep it from being used.  All this takes place under the pressure exerted by the politicians and the military.  Later, the Bomb hangs over the stage while Kitty (Oppenheimer) and Pasqualita (the children’s caretaker) tend to the Oppenheimer’s two children, a baby and a young boy.

Kitty, Pasqualita and the bomb

According to Thomas May in “Opera Notes” in the Lyric Opera Program,  “we are made to feel the same uneasiness as the characters themselves, who are not yet aware of how the experiment will play out. “ Teller reports that bets are being taken as to whether the experiment will set off a chain reaction over the entire world.  Terrible storms slow the experiment.  Suddenly, the world seems to slow.  The staging (Adrianne Lobel), the lighting (James F. Ingalls) and the orchestra (conducted by Robert Spano) create an unforgettable, deeply emotional experience. 

The libretto includes recently declassified government documents, poetry from Charles Baudelaire, John Donne, and Muriel Rukeyser, chants from the Bhagavad-Gita and Native American songs and legends.  I especially enjoyed Gerald Finley and Meredith Arwady and found the dancers very effective during the final scenes.

Watching the rocket that signals 5 minutes until detonation

Evening performances begin at 7:30 but we greatly enjoyed the 6:30 talk by Peter Sellars, which set the tone for the performance. Performances run 3 hours and 17 minutes.  This production was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Barbara and Richard Franke, LaSalle Bank, The Boeing Company and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Dr. Atomic runs through January 19, 2008 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker.  Phone: 312.332.2244 for tickets.

Photos: Dan Rest and Robert Kusel

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