Dr. Atomic, San Francisco Opera
On Wednesday, 5 October, I went to see this new opera by John Adams with libretto and production by Peter Sellers. The images and sounds that I walked away with were myriad, but one remained as the central image of the opera. In the second act, the curtain rises on a baby's cradle over which is hovering/hanging the bomb. The bomb is painted a pearly, off, white, but its cords, connections, and shape portray the menace. For several minutes not much happens excepting an orchestral interlude that is surprisingly Wagnerian in tone - think "Forest Murmurs" without the birds. This image of calm and yet anxiety remains for the majority of the act. Actions both within the home, and without it; in the laboratory, at the Trinity site, all revolve quite literally around it.
The forces, a male, aggressive, rational theme (Oppenheimer et. al) is counterbalanced by a female, wistful, illogical, deeply personal theme (Kitti Oppenhemer), and both are confronted by the cradle song sung by the Oppenheimer's maid, Pasquita. She is the true calm of nature - (the nature which threatens the whole of the Trinity and Manhattan program) and to which both the other forces appeal, and seek to enlist or placate.
The dialogue is both poetic, and ordinary, and the audience is sent flying from the beauty of seeing the ordinary transformed, to the beauty of other poets re-though. John Donne's Holy Sonnets is referred to often:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.The final scene was stunning (I'm not going to give it away), and the audience I sat with didn't quite know what to do. The applause came, almost reluctantly, and not because of some fault of the performance. Rather we had journeyed hard into our own senses and judgments, and were not ready to let it go. Even after the applause had begun in earnest - it was held back, waiting to return to the introspection taught to us by Robert Oppenheimer.