Doctor Atomic synopsis
Music by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars adapted from original sources
First performed: 2005
Scene 1 The Manhattan Project Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, June 1945
The most brilliant scientists in the world have been gathered at Los Alamos to create the first atomic bomb, under the leadership of the charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer. These cultured, non-conformist scientists are working at fever pitch, racing against the clock to get the bomb tested and ready for use against their counterparts in Nazi Germany. Then Germany surrenders.
Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who first understood the potential of a nuclear chain reaction, writes to his friend Edward Teller asking him to circulate a petition to ask his fellow scientists to take a moral stand against dropping the bomb on Japan. While the debate rages in the laboratory, Native American Tewa Indians from a local village quietly perform menial tasks. Szilard’s letter argues that by keeping quiet they are behaving like those Germans who failed to protest against Hitler. Oppenheimer replies that scientists should stay out of politics. Robert Wilson, an idealistic young physicist, accuses him of joining the Establishment and reads out his own petition suggesting they invite Japanese observers to the test and give them a chance to surrender.
Oppenheimer announces that President Truman will never see the petition and that a short list of densely populated civilian targets has already been selected, including Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Scene 2 The Oppenheimers' residence
Kitty Oppenheimer tries to seduce her husband, but he remains absorbed in his work. Finally, he responds by quoting from the work of one of his favourite poets, Charles Baudelaire. Before they make love, Oppenheimer is again distracted by his work and leaves Kitty alone. She reflects on the need for love.
Scene 3 The Trinity test site, Alamogordo, New Mexico, 15 July 1945; the night before the test
A terrible electrical storm is raging. General Groves blames his meteorologist, Captain Frank Hubbard, for the bad weather. Hubbard is at the end of his tether and reminds the General that weather forecasters had predicted these storms for months. Continuing with the test under these conditions means that the heavy winds and rain will drench an area of hundreds of miles with radiation. The General informs Hubbard that if he fails to predict the passing of the storm he will hang him.
Oppenheimer is under intense pressure and retreats into mystical reflections from the Bhagavad Gita. Captain Nolan of the Army Medical Corps warns of the terrible consequences of radiation poisoning. There is an atmosphere of high anxiety at the camp.
As the night wears on some men watch a favourite movie, others continue to work on the bomb and, in a rare moment of vulnerability, General Groves confides in Oppenheimer about his weight problems.
Groves retires leaving Oppenheimer alone. In a moment of complete anguish, Oppenheimer recites a sonnet by John Donne, "Batter my heart".
Scene 1 The night of 15 July 1945 continues
Back in Los Alamos, Kitty Oppenheimer and her Tewa maid, Pasqualita, are keeping vigil. Kitty drinks heavily and reflects on the war and the need for peace. Her seven-month-old baby wakes up; Pasqualita tries to interest Kitty in the baby, but consoles the child herself with a traditional lullaby.
Out on the test site, the men are wet, cold and exhausted as the storm worsens.
The plutonium bomb has been mounted on the detonation tower. Robert Wilson attaches a measuring instrument to the "gadget" and explains how nervous he is about being next to a nuclear bomb in a thunderstorm. Hubbard reiterates his foreboding about the test and Wilson remembers a recurring dream in which he keeps falling.
In Los Alamos the women see visions of death.
General Groves remains adamant the test must go ahead as scheduled because Truman is in Potsdam negotiating with Churchill and Stalin and needs to play a trump card. Edward Teller jokes that Enrico Fermi, one of the most respected scientists, has been taking bets about whether the bomb will ignite the earth's atmosphere and destroy the entire world. Teller then distributes suntan lotion to protect them against radiation.
Oppenheimer disregards Hubbard's warnings and orders the test shot to proceed at 5.30 am. There is general panic.
Each of the main characters is overwhelmed by their own private terrors. Groves frets about the political unreliability of these scientists; Oppenheimer is gripped with anxiety about time moving inexorably towards what could be total destruction.
Teller lightens the mood by organizing a sweepstake to guess the explosive yield of the bomb. Most of the scientists are pessimistic and guess a very low yield, a "fizzle".
The Tewa, who have been almost invisibly performing menial tasks, put on their sacred masks and observe the antics of the "Anglos" below. There is a powerful chorus from the Bhagavad Gita conjuring up a horrific image of the bomb:
"At the sight of this, your Shape
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies…"
General Groves is now seriously concerned that Oppenheimer, who hasn't eaten for days and is becoming increasingly erratic, will have a nervous breakdown.
Oppenheimer stumbles around quoting his beloved Baudelaire until he hears the warning rocket and shouts for everyone to take their places in the trenches.
After a period of frenzied activity, everyone gathers to watch the final explosion. They are fearful that it will either fizzle out or kill them all and others for hundreds of miles around. There is an eerie silence and then the bomb goes off.
The voice of a Japanese woman is heard begging for water.
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