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

As you walk across the glistening White Sands desert in central New Mexico, you would never have imagined that a historic event had happened there 63 years ago. You pick up a green, glassy substance. What lies on your hand is trinitite, evidence of the first atomic explosion. What happened here, the events that lead to the detonation, and the psychological fear and stress of those involved in the Manhattan Project is the subject of the opera “Doctor Atomic” with dramatic music by John Adams and a libretto by Peter Sellars. Doctor Atomic brilliantly revived the historic yet modern event that marked mankind’s highest ambitions and deepest fears.

The opening scenes take place at Los Alamos, the headquarters of the Manhattan Project, two weeks before the test. The following scenes take place on the night of July 15th and 16th, in the hours leading up to the detonation. One major leading character was Robert J. Oppenheimer, the American physicist who oversaw and directed the project to create the world’s first nuclear weapon, a weapon that even struck fear in its creators. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer once said when the bomb went off.

As the curtains unfolded, the stage and props were cleverly positioned and not what I expected. Each character occupied a cubical area that had shades on which portraits were revealed – the faces and names of the thousands of experts who were involved in the project. Behind those shades were the actual actors. The concept of a small cubicle certainly pertained to how each scientist felt at the time of the bomb’s creation. Each was assigned a job and worked day and night. At times, they threw their papers to the floor below them, creating a chaotic and turbulent atmosphere that I could imagine.

I admit that at some parts I was a bit confused, especially when the characters in each cubicle made interesting acrobatic positions. What really puzzled me was the finale, which basically was a prolonged moment before the bomb detonated. On stage, the entire cast crowded together while crouching on one knee, wearing tinted glasses, and staring into the audience. Although I anticipated an extraordinary explosion on the stage, I disappointedly realized that the audience was the actual bomb. The visual effect of the explosion of the bomb was literally blinding. The backdrop of a white sheet reflected the blazing light and illuminated the entire theater. This light signified the actual occurrence of the bomb’s explosion, a historic moment that stirred 20th century science and proved the advancement of the United States’ scientific power.

1 comment

1 Katie Alarcon { 12.01.08 at 6:34 am }

Very clearly expressed Anna, I to did not know what to expect when that moment the “bomb exploded”, I was unsure if the lights were the explosion or the audience was. Twas confusing to be sure. The little cubicles reminded me of a beehive which would add to the flurry of activity and motion that you describe so adeptly here. Well done.