I saw the San Francisco Opera perform Doctor Atomic last night. My opinion: It was amazing, and this is one for the ages.
Now first off, let’s get the criticism out of the way: There were a couple of spots that just dragged on nebulously, and I started to just get plain old bored. It is very hard to get me bored at an opera ��� I love opera performances, and especially this one for me had given me a lot of anticipation. Specifically, I’m referring to Scene II, and just a little bit from Scene III.
However, this is a relatively minor critique in light of the overall composition, production, and performance.
Kristine Jepson as Kitty Oppenheimer was absolutely amazing. Her impressive vocal execution of some incredibly difficult passages was my favorite part of the vocal component of this opera. All the vocal performances were great, including the chorus, and I really enjoyed it.
The production, especially the set design and choreography, made a real impression on me. The visual sight of a mother and child alone on a dark stage, with an enormous bomb hanging right over their heads, while sounds of everyday conversation was looped via tape. The choreography was spectacular in the way it depicted the concepts of everyday work juxtaposed with the horror of war, all underlined by the physics of the atom.
Segments of the text were direct copies of things I recognized, from the letter by Leo Slizard to initiate the Manhattan Project, to Oppenheimer’s recitals of ancient Sanskrit from the Bhagavad Gita. (I may have missed it, but I don’t think that they worked in his famous and ominous recitation of the phrase from chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita before the Trinity test:
I have become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.)
This was an opera about deep personal conflict, revolving around the genius Oppenheimer and his colleagues as they proceeded to build the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever conceived. To invent a conventional weapon is one thing. But to invent a weapon that is capable of erasing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in one instant, that is something that generates feelings of unimaginable horror, extreme guilt, and even inescapable fascination. What really left me after seeing this opera was the take on the issues involved: The conflict, the humanity, the despair, the fear, and the human curiosity and determination that saw it all through in the face of everything.
The opera ended with the test blast at the Trinity site, with everyone’s heads propped up from their positions of shelter in fascination and awe. As the rumble subsided, a Japanese woman’s voice can be heard repeating over and over again a simple request for a drink of water. This is an ominous reminder of the horrible aftermath of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the water was heavily tainted so that those that drank the water suffered and died from radiation poisoning, while those that did not drink suffered and died from thirst ��� and more importantly ��� a reminder that war’s greatest tragedy is how it affects the innocent.
I am especially glad that I got to see this opera in it’s premiere. I can tell that this one will go down in history as one of the top operatic works of our era. It is a work of genius, and I do not use that word lightly.
I think that this opera goes right on up there with Minard’s chart of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia as some of the most effective anti-war propaganda ever created.