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

My mixed emotions about Dr. Atomic, an opera composed by John Adams, are quite alike those of Robert J. Oppenheimer when he was creating the atomic bomb. The process of watching the opera in its beauty was alluring, but the end product was puzzling. My expectations for an intriguing opera ended with disappointment.

            I was amazed by the props on stage, especially the gigantic three-story box that housed numerous scientists working away at one point and Native Americans singing at another. The metallic bomb was also impressive. A few things, however, were a bit ambiguous in my mind. There were peaks of white cloth that I later found out were mountains, and it didn’t occur to me exactly what the bits of metal hanging around symbolized until the end of the play. I accepted these things as artistic liberties that I would later understand and I watched Act I and II with great anticipation. I was intrigued by the use of poetry in the lines of Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. I also appreciated the contrast between bedroom scenes and scenes of scientists and military officials in the desert. After the intermission, I expected Act II to be filled with tension and end with a piercing bang. I was only half right with my prediction.

            As I braced myself for the countdown to the detonation of the bomb, I opened my ears to Kitty Oppenheimer’s reflections on war, death, and resurrected life with an open mind of racing thoughts on the immensity of the opera’s plot and the characters involved within it. Near the beginning of the opera, Scientist Edward Teller sang, “First of all, let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience.”             The beginning of Dr. Atomic to Act II, Scene II was filled with strain and second thoughts on the sense of humanity that the bomb lacked. All of the poetry and internal struggle summed up in the end to be far less moving than I expected. All of the tension leading up to the finish of the opera ended with a fizzle, not an explosion. There was no sense of time near the ending of the countdown, which confused me. Instead of being a thundering bang, the bomb seemed to be as quiet as a gurgling brook. When the curtain closed, I expected another intermission followed by the real detonation of the bomb. Although the music, libretto, and set design of Dr. Atomic created a beautiful opera; all in all, Dr. Atomic was a let down. My high hopes for an explosive opera ended with a thud.



1 comment

1 Jack { 12.11.08 at 12:21 am }

Emily, I share the same feeling about Dr Atomic. The opera was very well designed, but the lack of surprise in the end was a disappointment. As for the metal hanging in the opera, I think that it represents the shattered life of the Japanese people.