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A thrilling launch

'Doctor Atomic' by John Adams,
reviewed by CARSON COOMAN


In what seems to have been the most anticipated new music event of the 2005-06 concert season, San Francisco Opera presented the world première on Saturday 1 October of Doctor Atomic, an opera in two acts by American composer John Adams (born 1947). The libretto was by Peter Sellars and Adams, and Sellars also provided the stage direction for the production.

The opera's plot revolves around the tests of the first atomic bomb in June 1945, as part of the American government's 'Manhattan Project'. The title character was the lead scientist for the project, J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). Other characters in the opera include other involved scientists (Robert Wilson, Edward Teller), military personnel (General Leslie Groves), as well as Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, and their maid (Pasqualita) and children.

General Leslie Groves (left) and J Robert Oppenheimer. Photo © US Department of Energy
General Leslie Groves (left) and J Robert Oppenheimer. Photo © US Department of Energy

The first act begins in June 1945, at the Los Alamos laboratory for the Manhattan project -- as the day of the first test approaches. The second scene takes place in the Oppenheimers' home, and the third scene at the 'Trinity' test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The first act is preparatory in its dramatic arc and contains, in a sense, many of the 'mundane' or daily activities that are involved in bringing the project to its completion. The scientists express their fears and differing opinions on what the bomb might unleash, or whether it should be used on Japan or humans. Kitty and Robert share a brief sensual love scene, amidst the rigor of Robert's work. The military staff and scientists worry about the terrible weather forecasts for the test day.

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Copyright © 3 October 2005 Carson P Cooman, San Francisco, USA


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