The Terror and Attraction of Science, Put to Song
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Is it the horror or the beauty that makes science cool?
Sometimes it seems as if horror is the only story that science has to tell, or the only one we want to hear. Somebody has a gadget they have to build, an experiment too sweet to resist, forces they need to probe, regardless of the consequences. Think of Eve with her apple, Frankenstein with his monster, a stock trader with a foolproof get-rich-quick scheme.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that it usually ends badly.
The tug of war between beauty and horror is the theme of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars about the building of the atomic bomb, which opened last week at the Metropolitan Opera. It stars Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant philosopher-king of the secret society of scientists and engineers who were plucked from academia and assembled on a New Mexico mesa during World War II and told to make a bomb before the Germans did — a man as sung by Mr. Finley equally in love with the Bomb and his own inscrutability.
The opera follows events on two nights — one in June and then on the eve of July 16 during the countdown to the first test explosion at Alamogordo amid lightning and rain — as the scientists wrestle with doubts about whether “the Gadget,” as they refer to the bomb, will work, or work too well, setting the atmosphere on fire, and whether it should be dropped on humans.
As a love-starved Kitty Oppenheimer, sung by Sasha Cooke, sings, “Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.”
“Doctor Atomic” was surely born on the dark side of science mythology. Pam Rosenberg, then director of the San Francisco Opera, wanted to do an opera about an American Faust, namely Oppenheimer, whose life certainly seemed to follow a tragic trajectory. Wealthy, articulate and effortlessly fluent in far-flung domains of learning and culture, he was the young American prince of the new science of quantum mechanics as well as a bohemian and a pal of communists (his brother Frank and his ex-lover Jean Tatlock). Less than a decade after he was hailed as the deliverer of Promethean fire and the symbol of American science, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and banished from government circles.
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