JOHN ADAMS – DOCTOR ATOMIC – SAN FRANCISCO – OCTOBER 1st 2005 – DE
NEDERLANDSE OPERA – 2007
We are dealing here with a highly
political subject and opera. We are dealing here with the scientists who
invented, tested and then supervised the use of the first atom bomb ever
produced, tested and used in the world. The main character is thus Oppenheimer
himself with a couple of his colleagues and the military personnel that is
following the project. We are after the victory over Germany
and before the atom bombs on Hiroshima
that will bring the surrender of Japan
, or should I say precede Japan
surrender that was expected any time before the bombs were dropped. The opera
only considers the stakes and ethical questions of the scientists themselves.
The fact that the use of these atom bombs will bring the Cold War is not even
considered, it is even hinted at as being a common project with the Soviet Union
, which is totally false. It was a unilateral
action of the US
have been avoided politically and militarily because it was purely useless: the
victory and the surrender of Japan
was only a question of days.
Even so this opera is strongly
anti-military and anti-atomic from the purely scientific point of view. Ethics
are here and there alluded to, especially by second zone scientists, not the
top ones, but it is only anecdotes more than real facts and actions. The
opera’s libretto is supposed to have been written from authentic documents, and
it contains a lot of literary quotations. This implies the positions defended
by the two top scientists and the top general in this case are supposed to be authentic,
in spite of the numerous and long literary quotations that are set in
Oppenheimer’s mouth. The anti-war and anti-atomic meaning of the opera is not
really expressed as such, but can be derived from what is being said, because
it may freeze our blood in our own veins.
First of all the chorus opening
the opera is scientifically fundamental.
“Matter can be neither created
nor destroyed but only altered in form.” . . . “Energy can be neither created
nor destroyed but only altered in form. But now we know that matter may become
energy and thus be altered in form.”
It was known before since
Einstein had proposed it as a theory. But the atomic research, today known as
nuclear research, proved it. All is energy and energy is material by essence.
It is the volatile and flexible form of matter and matter is nothing but an
assemblage of energy. This is frightening because it states there was no creation,
hence no possible god or other event that would have brought the world into
existence from nothing. This is frightening because everything in the world
being matter and energy and the former being only a particular form of the
latter we are nothing but an assemblage of energy particles. That brings up the
fundamental principle of Buddhism: we are part of cosmic energy and our
material existence is nothing but a transient condensation of this energy in
our evanescent body and being. No divine soul, nothing stable and long-lasting
in us, nothing but unstable energy that can be released or can release itself
eventually. Life is not our essence, death is and life is nothing but a short
suspension of that death thanks to the condensation of a certain amount of
energy into our likeness we call our body or our mind, and death is only the
point when and where the enrgy that composes our body is restructured,
naturally altered in form. Religion is totally side-tracked and even science is
marginalized. The scientist is a sorcerer’s apprentice playing with some
natural criteria and parameters that we cannot control. At best, maybe, we can
manage them so that we do not get burnt up or destroyed by our tinkering about.
We are not then surprised by what
Oppenheimer says about the soul:
“The soul is a thing so
impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss [the
loss of human conscience due to the work on this humanity-negating nuclear
energy] I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my
We are beyond the negation of
God. We have reached here the reduction of the divine soul to some kind of
ethical essence that is anyway nothing at all and practically rejected by
Oppenheimer. To do what he or they is or are doing he or they must have no soul
whatsoever. When the scientist who is second in command says that they should
speak up and try to influence the politicians who are making the decisions how
to use this atomic power he is rebutted by Oppenheimer in the most
condescending way possible:
fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington.”
Who says they are the best men?
And the principles of the use of this atomic power in Japan are
“. . . Psychological factors in
selecting the targets are of great importance. . . We cannot give the Japanese
any warning. . . Doctor Conant suggests a vital war plant is the most desirable
target, employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by worker’s
houses. . . Several strikes would be feasible. . . The more decisive a weapon
is the more surely it will be used, and no agreement will help. Would we have
started the atomic age with clean hands?”
Then everything has been said and
the only words that can be used here are cynicism, hypocrisy, unconsciousness,
vanity and of course thirst and hunger for power and prestige, even if
criminal. The attitude of the General is typical: he wants to command the
weather, order nature to do what he wants and abide by his law, or diktat. And
this libretto is nearly nice on the subject because it does not speak of the
time when the bomb must be dropped, which is early enough in the morning to
catch the workers going to work and the children going to school to make sure
the casualties are essentially innocent and totally non military by definition,
even if they work in some military factories, though children do not. Civilian
victims are not even collateral. They are the target. We are dealing here with
a crime against humanity and it necessarily feeds the thirst and hunger for
authority in many men.
Then the wrapping it up in
Oppenheimer’s wife’s pangs of conscience is useless since she has no say in
what is happening. Her husband neither by the way. The attitude of some
disagreeing scientists like Wilson
in the opera is just vain and useless, if not hypocritical, since they know
security would stop their petition before it even entered the oval office or
penetrate the White House. And we have nothing to say about Oppenheimer himself
and his near nervous breakdown during the count down for the test. Do not even
mention the cynical Teller, second in command in the scientific team, who is
just up-handedly brandishing some negative arguments as his taste for black
humor allows him to make fun of everything. Cynicism and foolishness are the
main two characters of these people. Note the fact that humanity will always do
what it can do, no matter how criminal or dangerous it may be, is not really
questioned and anyway if Americans did not do it, Germans would do it, or the
Japanese, or Russians. There is in this opera a fatality in history: always
will human beings invent new weapons that will always have to be more and more
The conclusion comes from
Oppenheimer who does not speak in his own words but quote a sonnet by John
Donne. He addresses a plea to “three-person’d God” to take him and imprison him
because by becoming the prisoner of God he could be freed from God’s enemy who
he is “betroth’d to.” This is a vision of absolute dependence, total and final
subservience, immense and yet divided obedience.
The only challenge then comes
from Oppenheimer’s Navajo nurse and maid, Pasqualita, who brings in that bleak
picture a more “natural” approach. First a lullaby from her culture to put the
baby to sleep: the Cloud-Flower Lullaby, one of the Songs of the Tewa
translated by Herbert Joseph Spinden and published in 1933. The Tewa are Pueblo Indians, who live on the Hopi
Reservation in Arizona.
“In the north the cloud-flower
And now the lightning flashes,
And now the thunder clashes,
And now the rain comes down!
A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.”
It will be repeated four times.
The full stanza for the west, next the south, and finally the east, but in this
last case Pasqualita will be interrupted after two lines.
Then Pasqualita will quote part
of the eighth elegy, from the 1949 volume “Eligies” by Muriel Rukeyser, which
is an evocation of the dead during the WWII, and their possible return that
will never happen (being sung by Pasqualita we could think it means the Indians
who were killed during the Indian wars and the Indian genocide):
“Then word came from a runner, a
are dancing to bring the dead back, in the mountains.”
danced at an autumn fire, we danced the old hate and change,
The coming again of our leaders.
But they did not come.
winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.
came on the frost, “The dead are on the march!”
danced in prison to a winter music,
we loved began to dream of the dead.
made no promises, we never dreamed a threat.
And the dreams spread.
the summer dreaming was common to all of us,
drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,
to bind us as the visions streamed
midnight brightened to belief.
the morning we told our dreams.
They all were the same dream.”
This is of course the evocation
of World War II and the fifty million casualties, and in particular, since
Muriel Rukeyser is Jewish, the fate of the Jews in the Shoah. They were gone
and they did not come back. They were taken beyond the gate of light that casts
no shade and they never came back.
The only solace or support
Oppenheimer can find in his situation is an evocation of Vishnu, the Preserver
in the Hindu trinity, who is brought forward by the chorus in a translation
that seems personal. We have to keep in mind Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit in
1933, and the “Baghavad Gītā” in
particular. He declared to Christian Century Magazine in 1963:
general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries
in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly
unheard of or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist
and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in
modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of
But the quotation the “Baghavad Gītā” sounds like a very poor solace
and a deep anguish if not fear in front of the imminent first explosion of this
“At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace
is gone; my heart is troubled.”
Gītā” Chapter 11, verses 23 & 24)
end of the opera is situated in the text two minutes before the test. But the
opera in this stage production is slightly different.
can know shift to the music and the stage production.
opera divides the stage in three spaces: in the foreground Oppenheimer’s home
with one night scene with his wife in bed first: a scene that was supposed to
be sentimental if not erotic and that turns into some very distantly
metaphorical evocation of sensuous pleasures centered on perfumes, the perfumes
he finds in his wife’s hair and that evoke fruit, foliage and human skin. But
he was working on some document at the beginning, he stopped for a short while
and he interrupted this sentimental drift to go back to his bomb. Then that
private space will be occupied by Kitty Oppenheimer, her infant daughter in a
cradle, the Navajo nurse and later three helpers for that nurse. Two short
incursions of Peter Oppenheimer, their son can be noted. This private space is
centered on the baby and the five women are only there to take care of her.
middle stripe on the stage we have the labs and the bomb with two types of
personnel, the scientists on one side and then the military people who are
managing the first test of this bomb with the scientists, and also trying to
manage the weather and the scientists.
back, hence in the background of the stage we have an open space where dancers
intervene very often, most of the time six dancing on a circle, and once four
dancing on parallel lines running from left to right. Personally I do not see
what these dancers are bringing to the opera, except that they are dancing in circles
like the scientists and the soldiers who are activating themselves, running in
circles mostly after their own tails like Chopin’s Little Dog Waltz.
the back of the stage is most of the time cut in two layers, a top layer that
is black and a layer between that top layer and the back line of the stage that
is used for light. It is often white, but can be blue or red according to the
the stage is visually putting one on top of the other five layers from the
foreground to the top of the backdrop. This is very interesting for the DVD
because cameras can shift from one layer to the next and concentrate or zoom in
onto one section of these layers, on one face, one character. We practically
never have a full vision of the stage, which is kind of frustrating.
music is essentially some accompanying music behind the singing. The singing
itself having to be clearly understood because of the pregnancy of the text is
more chanted than sung. There are very few instances when the singing has any
kind of musical complication. At times it is even slightly humdrum. But then
the music behind and in-between two sentences can be rich and impressive but
always of the accompanying type used to amplify the meaning of the words.
singing emphasizes some words or phrases by repeating them and such repetitions
are never gratuitous and are most of the time triple repetition or a triple
simple repetition with a fourth one that is one word longer, or one word
shorter. This pattern of four being clearly three plus one is an echo to John
Donne’s “three-personed God” and this Christian reference is important because
then the extension to four is necessarily the extension to the crucifixion.
This is a direct allusion to these scientists who are probably very religious
in their common life (saying graces at every meal, going to church every
Sunday, etc) and yet their very activity is making them the agent of the devil,
“your enemy” in Donne’s words. Donne’s richness is not entirely used. For
example the last five lines of the sonnet are very rich in this symbolical way:
betroth’d to your enemy (A),
me (1), untie (2), or break
that knot again (3),
to you (4), imprison me (5), for I
Except (B) you
enthrall me (6), never shall
be free (C),
chaste (D), except (E) you
ravish me (7).”
enemy is A-B-C-D-E, hence a pentacle, the devil of course. God is asked to do seven
things hence the holy week that ends we must keep in mind on the crucifixion
and the resurrection. The crucifixion is carried by the four negatives B-C-D-E-
within the pentacle of the devil. And the seven requests to God plus the five
attachments to the devil make twelve and there we are whole again since it is
the number of the Last Supper’s participants, once Judas, the supposed traitor
fact in the first scene of the second act Kitty in a long poem by Muriel
Rukeyser introduces Jesus:
“. . . This earth-long day
Between blood and resurrection where we wait
Remembering sun, seed, fire; remembering
That fierce Judaean Innocent who risked
Every immortal meaning on one life.”
the Judaean Innocent is captured in our memories between blood and resurrection,
the crucifixion on the Friday afternoon (death at the ninth hour) and the
resurrection on the Sunday morning.
music thus puts up this drama. We could say a lot more.
last remark. The opera starts with black and white images of war scenes,
desolation, dead people, bombings, and it ends with the color vision of all the
actors and singers lying on their stomach on the ground while the sound tracks
gives us some Japanese remarks from people after a bombing looking for help of
for relatives, and these Japanese sentences are duly translated in English for
us to see the meaning, at least on the DVD. Before we had simple bombings and
after the test shown on the stage it will be the next generation of bombings,
the atomic generation and the desolation of survivors. War is a cycle from one
battle to the next and it never stops.
opera is not a call for peace. It is a pessimistic call for the end of that
ever going war process that is human by essence and we know it will never end.
it may live for generations in our modern universe because of the Post
Traumatic Stress Syndrome it may build in the survivors and the descendants of
the survivors, be it only in the morbid celebrations of the “victories” that
were never that glorious, due to the horror committed by the victors during the
war, and these horrors were often just as horrible as those committed by the
defeated ones. Is Coventry in any way worse than
Dresden, Pearl Harbor than Hiroshima?
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subject of the opera is tragically dramatic. Germany has capitulated. The first
test of the atom bomb has not yet taken place. A handful of scientists work on
the project cut off from the rest of the world. Roosevelt
is dead and Truman is in the job. The scientists would prefer to postpone the
test and cancel the use of this bomb. The military authorities and the
political higher-ups want to imprint onto the world their absolute mark that
they are number one and unchallengeable. The test will have to be done (at the
end of the first act) and the real bomb will have to be dropped (at the end of
the second act). Reduced to that the argument is light and yet politically
powerful. But the opera is a lot more than that. It is showing the inside of
the minds of these scientists, their doubts and their certainties. Their doubts
that this bomb is of any use now the only danger in that line, i.e. Germany is off
the killing ground. Their certainties that this bomb will be a weapon of such
mass destruction that it should leave the world dead or at least dead silent.
This bomb should not be used. This bomb was used and should not have been used.
But the second act is by far more important in that tragic line because it
centers on the women and the fear and awe they develop in front of the horror
of this bomb. They sort of visualize the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies
lying around anywhere with no warning whatsoever or so little. Kitty
Oppenheimer and Pasqualita are admirable in their parts. A soprano and a
mezzo-soprano that are so close and so different at the same time that their
voices sound like the echo of each other, though Pasqualita is the echo of
Kitty Oppenheimer soaring up from the depth of hell itself and Kitty Oppenheimer
is the echo of Pasqualita roaming around in a complete and infinite waste land.
They dominate and control the whole act and their silent unblinking faces at
the end are the deepest and most ethical humane condemnation of what their men
have just been doing. But it is an opera you will say. And it is. The stage
directing is very empty, blank, nude. Just some props here and there and a few
dancers in the background. The music is a beauty in its plainness and in its
extremely somber sounds and very often or even most of the time un-melodious
chiseling. The notes are often flat one after another and when there is a high
dive or a deep jump it is always to express some kind of torn and tortured soul
visited by the crimes that are going to be committed and that no one can stop
or prevent. I would even say that John Adams wants his music to sound like
gravel lamenting the murderous mind of men in a long dirge that will end up in
silent on some kind of chaotic polyrhythmic percussion piece tolling away for
who knows whom who ordered the massacre just for political and military
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon
Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID