Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Dr. Atomic: More History Lesson Than Opera

The lights dim, the stage is set, and suddenly the audience is thrust into the mid-1940’s. There is a palpable sense of tension as the audience comes to the understanding that what s being portrayed is the nerve center of the project behind the creation of the atomic bomb. The voices of the scientist sing out as they describe the science behind the creation of this terrible device. As they finish their discourse on molecular structure, the story becomes real and personal. We are shown the high-stakes world of radical science, where any new development equals a possible new weapon to be used to wage war. Morals and ethics are brought into the equation, as the scientists understand what they are dealing with and what it means for the world. The concerns of many of the projects officials are laid bare and we see their concern and hesitation regarding the terrible power that they have been responsible for creating.

Much of the turmoil that results from such high stakes comes courtesy of the lead character, the genius behind the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. We can see Mr. Oppenheimer’s conflict as he tries to reconcile the advancements he is making in science with the potentially millions of deaths that it will cause. His struggle is one of the highlights of the performance. He is the central piece to the story and all of the other performances pale in comparison with his. Oppenheimer’s unparalleled intelligence provides the fuel that makes this project go, but we are shown his conflicted nature. One of the most poignant moments of the entire performance comes towards the end of the first half of the play. We see Mr. Oppenheimer standing alone with the atomic bomb held over his head as he sings John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV. He stares up at the weapon born of his brilliance and as he sings it is as though he is controlled by his ambition. It seems like he understands the terrible power of the weapon but cannot and will not be diverted from his course; he is too far on his path to turn back as he nears its end.

            Dr. Atomic is of course, an opera and it is open to debate as to whether or not it should even be one. In any case, much of the audience’s appreciation for the story will be governed by their appreciation for the quality of the actors’ voices. Overall, the cast did an admirable job with a very difficult task. Their voices were worthy of an Operatic performance and the actors made their characters believable for the most part. The music did well to convey the tension that permeated the performance. It was appropriately dramatic but could switch to softer tones as well. For example, the music would become softer during Oppenheimer’s conversations with his wife. The costumes did not have to be elaborate for this performance and they fit the time period quite well, with all of the men in suits and hats and the military officials in their appropriate attire. Last but not least is the bomb itself. The weapon of mass destruction certainly did not have the polished look of warheads from Hollywood movies, but it was not supposed to. There were wires wrapped around it and such and this gave it an almost primitive look, which was exactly what it should have had, given that this had never been attempted before. Even though the performances were solid, the music excellent and the costumes authentic, the Opera could not be save from the fcat that it would have been much better off as a full-scale play.

            Dr. Atomic, while being an opera in definition, is more of a very well constructed history lesson. This is not to knock the performers who did a fine job with what they had to work with or with the music that was cleverly adapted to this event. The problem is with the idea that such a fine story had to be told as an Opera. The performance is by no means a poor one and your time will not be wasted for it does a fantastic job with what it is given. I simply feel as though the Operatic nature takes something away from what is otherwise a fascinating time-period in history. The Manhattan project was shrouded in secrecy for so long that seeing its true story is extremely gratifying. If you have a chance to go see Dr. Atomic do so, if for nothing else than the fascinating history of its subject.

1 comment

1 Vince { 12.10.08 at 2:18 am }

Christian my brother… great review man. i agree 100% in that the singers’ voices were great and the wardrobes fit the time period. I also liked how u addressed the appearance of the bomb itself. many people including myself were skeptical of the representation of the bomb. thanks for clearing that up bud!