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'Doctor Atomic' by John Adams

English National Opera, 25th February–20th March 2009

Set at the time of the first atomic bomb test in 1945 and the days leading up to it, this opera looks at these events through the focal characters of J Robert Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, fellow physicist Edward Teller, and general Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project. The libretto created by Peter Sellars is based on original source material including interviews, memoirs and declassified documents, as well as other works such as the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Baudelaire and John Donne.

As the opera opens we peer into the furious open heart of the Manhattan Project: scientists, engineers, families, soldiers, cleaners, presented on stage in a vast living lattice, a periodic table made real, a human beehive, everyone in their box-like world working for one vast and overwhelming aim. All is not well. The physicists argue about the morality of using the bomb. Leo Szilard urges his fellow scientists to sign the petition against dropping the bomb on Japan. Oppenheimer says scientists should stay out of politics and announces that President Truman will never see any petition.

Act I closes with the most dramatically intense moment of the whole work as Oppenheimer recites Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “Batter my Heart, three person’d God”, in the grip of complete desperation hours before the Trinity test. Musically, too, one is moved as the relentlessly atonal patterns of the preceding scenes resolve into something more tangible and meaningful.

Act II builds unstoppably towards the first ever atomic explosion at 5.30am on 16 July 1945. As the moment approaches, Groves worries about the unreliability of the scientists, Teller runs a sweepstake for the yield of the bomb, and Oppenheimer fears for the end of the world, wandering around practically delirious, quoting Baudelaire. The intensity seems unbearable. The set deforms, twisted out of shape, mirroring the emotional distortions of the characters themselves. At last the moment is reached; the bomb goes off, the world shakes on its axis. The cast gaze out from the stage. Finally the words of a Japanese woman are heard asking, again and again, for water.

John Adams has a track record of hard-edged, politically and morally-engaged operatic work. His Nixon in China (1987) was about the curious meeting between Mao and Nixon in 1972, and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990) was based on the hijacking of the liner Achille Lauro, the latter causing uproar because of the even-handed way it dealt with the protagonists.

It can sometimes feel that the ideas and concerns of movements for peace and anti-militarism are barely reflected in our wider culture. So it’s good just to know that people like John Adams and works like Doctor Atomic are out there, even if one rarely get the chance to see an opera. But Doctor Atomic is an amazing piece of work in its own right, even if, for me, its main impact worked through on a sort of time-delay fuse. Days after, I had flashbacks to particular lines (specifically the John Donne sonnet) sung out in my head, or odd images like the chemical symbols projected against the lattice, or the nightmarish slow geometrical twisting of the fabric of the set.

Seeing Doctor Atomic was a moving and profound experience. It made me want to see more opera. It made me realise that opera can deal with big, serious issues, and open up new perspectives on old material. This made me hopeful. However, it also made me feel sad that current moral concerns are not coming under this sort of powerful cultural microscope. We need to move on from our fascination with the physicists of Los Alamos. All around us are evolving urgent issues where the interplay of ethics, politics, and science will ultimately decide the fate of the world. Just this morning I listened to Jim Hansen (NASA climate scientist) being asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether he thought it was right for scientists to take part in campaigns or protests calling for action on climate change, rather than remaining impartial and aloof. I think Leo Szilard was right in 1945 and Jim Hansen is right in 2009 – scientists cannot remain silent or inactive but must follow their consciences, speak up, and act. To do otherwise is to cease to be human.