Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Dr. Atomic Bombs

War, tragedy, catastrophe, massacre, bomb, horror, radiation poisoning. These are just a few words that we can associate with the end of World War II and the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each one of these words evokes many negative emotions and may even bring some to tears considering the magnitude of destruction that this event caused. As viewers went to watch Dr. Atomic, an opera depicting the Manhattan Project itself, they expected to get the sense of these feelings: to put themselves at the scene and to experience what the scientists experienced. Unfortunately, due to sub-par voices, an overly simplistic story line, and a dissatisfying ending, this opera did not evoke much empathy or feeling.
Many operagoers probably enjoy the rich and projecting voices of the performers. Opera was originally performed in romance languages, and to this day they are performed in such a manner for the most part. It is beautiful to hear a duet of a man and a woman, singing in Italian, one high pitched and one low. To me it was a turn-off to see an opera in English. The language does not flow as well and is not as artistic. Although the language might be a preference, there is no doubt that the voices were definitely sub-par. These men were definitely not Pavarottis, and it was sometimes hard to hear them from the back. With the exception of Oppenheimer’s wife, the voices were not as good as I expected them to be at the Metropolitan Opera.
Being already disappointed with what I heard, the substance of the libretto was not any better. One would think that such a complicated and covert project in our country’s history would be an interesting story to finally reveal in detail to the public. However, it seemed as if the plot was very narrow and simple. The gist of the opera was that the atomic bomb was finally made, and certain individuals were getting second thoughts about actually using it. Throughout the three and a half hours of the show, we simply waited until the bomb would drop, but the test was constantly postponed due to weather related issues. This cycle went on and on until I began to get very impatient. While this boring and unemotional story progressed, the audience basically went through a highly sophisticated physics class, and was unnecessarily taught the basic structure of an atomic bomb. Finally, the end of the performance came about, and it made matters even worse.
The ending of the opera was the icing on the cake. As I waited for something interesting to finally happen, all hopes were inevitably squashed. As the decision was made to finally drop the atomic bomb, it was difficult to realize what had actually happened. There was a bright light, and a voice of a Japanese woman resonated through the theatre, when the curtain dropped. Was this really an ending? Did I wait for so long for this to happen? Unfortunately, I did.
Poor casting and a poor libretto definitely were a big issue with this performance.
Maybe John Adams and Peter Sellers thought that it would be fun to sing about the contents of the atomic bomb and create absolutely no climax. I for one was not jumping out of my chair with excitement.