Dr. Atomic: when opera and science collide


Dr. Atomic, the transfixing new opera by the composer John Adams in collaboration with the director and librettist Peter Sellars, calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ lines in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” The opera […] centers on the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at the culmination of his leadership of the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., that designed and constructed the first atomic bombs. It is set at Los Alamos, at the end of June 1945, several weeks before the first nuclear explosive was tested at Alamogordo, N.M., and then at the test site during the anxious, rainstormy hours preceding the detonation at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945.

Both Sellars and Adams, whose previous collaborations include Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, were drawn to the story by the moral tensions that suffuse it. Sellars, the more socially committed of the two, sees relevance in the tensions to the contemporary war against terror. “We are strangely underinformed about what is going on and what is at stake,” he says in the program notes. “Opera is able to go inside where the headlines aren’t going,” by which he means that art can reveal the moral complexity in great events.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; the opera opened back in 2005.  I remember a fellow opera-loving scientist telling me about it over the summer, but only just stumbled across this review in Slate the other day. 

I’ve always thought of operas as somewhat of a dying art. Originally, librettos drew their inspiration from mythologies, literature, and religion. There was a movement towards realism in the 19th century, after which it seemed to me, opera as an art form lost its contemporary relevance. Interesting (perhaps symbolic?) to think of science knocking mythology from its spot as a source of inspiration. 

It got me thinking about other scientific stories that have operatic potential. Darwin’s voyage on the beagle, perhaps? (edited for length…); love and radiation: the story of Marie Curie; Einstein’s early years as a college-drop out and minimum wage patent-office employee as a coming-of-age tale? 

Or, for true drama, Top 10 Scientists Killed or Injured by Their Work


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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.