Last night, Dr. Atomic closed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and I saw it from standing room. I have already written about a slow opera with big hopes, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha—this is another. What is it about these new operas, which have to turn every historical event into a funeral march?
In John Adams’s presentation of the last days of the Manhattan Project, he asks us to think endlessly through moments which proved themselves precisely impervious to thought. The best scenes show Robert Oppenheimer and his wife rapt in dances of poetry—Baudelaire and, best of all, John Donne’s three-person’d God. We are given to believe that they are possessed of the history in the process of possessing them, but I find that impossible to accept. The poetry is not the encounter, but the game. Or rather, the banality—as Hannah Arendt used the word when accounting for the monstrosities of the German side.
There is a photograph in the program book that, I think, captures what the opera didn’t. Two young men stand in the test tower next to the Gadget, the thing soon to produce the world’s first atomic blast. One, a physicist named Boyce McDaniel, leans back against the makeshift railing with ease. There he is, right beside the wirey thing, and he’s wearing a striped shirt. Stripes! Would you wear stripes to operatic history? When this Boyce hummed to himself, leaning there, whatever he was thinking, I doubt it sounded much like John Adams.
I love the bomb. I really do and always have. As a kid I spent hours reading and rereading the entry about it in the World Book. I read Paul Tibbets’s memoirs about dropping the first one on Hiroshima, and once I got to sit in the bomb bay of the Enola Gay, the plane he did it in. That love fell in the space where it shouldn’t, the same space that makes good poetry and good science alike so dangerous, where tortured ethics and bruised conscience haven’t come yet, but fascination has. Monstrous I was. How is it that we can love, or even lean on a balcony beside, the very thing that so hurts us?
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.