Wednesday, October 22, 2008

“Doctor Atomic”

We saw John Adam’s opera, “Doctor Atomic” last night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera is a compelling and very disturbing work about the implications of the first detonation in 1945 of the atomic bomb. The story centers on J. Robert Oppenheimer (sung beautifully by Gerald Finley), the lead physicist of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb in New Mexico. Oppenheimer is presented as a Faustian figure, agonizing over his desire to unlock the power of the atom and his fear for the destruction of the world now possible with the use of the bomb. The climax of his crisis is his aria, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”, a sonnet by John Donne. The horrible destructive potential of the bomb is invoked in his second major aria, the terrifying vision of Vishnu in the “Bhagavad Gita,” “At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous, full of mouths and eyes ... terrible with fangs... when I see you, Vishnu ... with your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring -- all my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”
The climax is not the test detonation in New Mexico, but the evocation of the devastation of Hiroshima, with the voice calling for water in Japanese. The work is both solemn and exhilarating, a very unlikely combination. I left the opera house knowing how god-like we humans are: like Vishnu, we can destroy the world. I also know that as yet we don’t use our God-given power to give peace. When will we “little Christs” follow his example?
“Doctor Atomic” will be performed again on October 25th and 30th, and on November 1st, 5th, 8th, and 13th. I hope you see it. A DVD of a Dutch performance is also available.


sfauthor said...

Thoughtful post. Just writing to let you know about this edition of the Gita.

D said...

I love that aria. I'm not a big opera person, but that song is terrific. I can still see Oppeheimer singing it, twisted and contorted.

Pete M said...

sfauthor and D,
Thank you for your comments. I hope to read the "Gita." The translation used in the libretto is by Sw. Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Do you know this translation? If so, how does it compare with the one you mentioned?
And, D, I presume that you are referring to "Batter my heart..." Yes, it was very powerful, but the Vishnu aria is terrifying.

Franklyn said...

The opera, by implication, is a warning about the scientific community getting too involved with the military. Currently, the government (and therefore the military) is deeply involved in almost all significant university based research. Often, the power in these relationships seem to be held by the military. The money comes with strings attached.

Anonymous said...

"We knew the world would not be the same, few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him he takes on his multi-arm form and says - 'now i am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'-- i suppose we all thought that one way or another."

- Robert Oppenheimer