Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Doctor atomic

When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.

(Bhagavad Gita)

A Stealth Bomber flies low over the skies of Los Angeles: a rehearsal of a staged flyby, and at the same time a reminder, in its improbable angular shape cast against unusual clouds, of how close we are to the heart of the military-industrial complex. The wings of the DoD loom large over campus and beyond the mountains lies a stretch of desert land those bombers belong to, a place of radioactive waste, nuclear silos, secret laboratories and the whole paraphernalia of dormant Cold War paranoia, flying saucers included.

It is the heritage of the Manhattan project that links the scientific elite to a continuation of this dubious alliance. Oppenheimer, with his joint appointments at Berkeley and Caltech, with his uneasy combination of poetry reading left wing radical and head of the atomic bomb project, is the most significant and almost archetypal image of the Californian scientific environment and its difficult relation to the demands of the more powerful forces behind the scenes of the American research highlights.

A recent interesting contribution to the collective and cultural reflectiion upon these themes is the new (2005) opera by John Adams "Doctor Atomic", on a libretto and choreography of Peter Sellars, the Los Angeles based theater director renown for his unusual and powerful transpositions of classic operas in modern context. The scene is set in the latest stages of the Manhattan project, shortly before the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb. All the lyrics are taken from historic documents: the discussions between Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, the two polar forces pushing towards and against the final use of the atomic bomb against civilian targets, the rising tension between the scientists and the military, the uneasy alliance of Oppenheimer and general Leslie Groves. These "factual" reports of conversations between the Los Alamos main character in the run up to the first nuclear explosion are counteracted by two other elements in the opera, the character of Kitty Oppenheimer, the communist wife of the physicist who embodies and gives a channel of expression to the tragedy and horror of the atomic warfare that is being built and tested to perfection. The second counterpart is the one that adds a universal dimension to the tragedy being represented, through the use of poetry: the powerful chorus from the Bhagavad Gita's "At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous" in the middle of the second act shifts the center of the attention from the individual to the global tragedy. At other times in the opera, poetry is called in to produce the opposite effect, focalize on the human and individual aspects of the universal tragedy of the mastering of nuclear energy: this is the case with John Donne's sonnet at the end of the first act, or with the Tewa Indian song in the second act. The discussion between Oppenheimer and Teller in the second act over Bethe's calculation of the predicted power of the explosion and whether it would suffice to ignite the atmosphere is well chosen to exemplify the anguish of the inevitable uncertainties that plagued the most ambitious research project of all times. The opera ends on the scene of the trinity test explosion, superimposed with a background of voices of Hiroshima survivors in the immediate aftermath of the real explosion.

This is as far from 19th century opera as anything can be: for one thing, it deals with things that matter and it does so powerfully and uncompromisingly. No screeching sopranos lamenting lost loves or unlikely pharaohs propagating the malady of nationalism, no plump walkyries heralding the final transformation of that same nationalism into a hideous monster. Doctor Atomic may well be a convincing proof that opera did not die with Mozart, even without the need to invoke Stokhausen's Light cycle.

As for the Manhattan project, an excellent documentary movie, which goes well before or after watching Doctor Atomic, is "The day after trinity", a beautiful account of the events featuring extensive first hand recollections from many of the Los Alamos scientists. The history, the atmosphere, the tensions and doubts, are all captured and discussed at length. One does come out of watching it with a deeper sense of understanding of what brought to a completion the creation of the most ominous monster ever envisioned by the human imagination.