When art and life collide under precisely correct conditions, a spiritual explosion can happen. That happened for me last night during a performance of Dr. Atomic at the Santa Fe Opera. I can’t tell yet whether the experience will be life-changing, but I can’t stop - and don’t want to stop - thinking about it.
Dr. Atomic, an opera by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, focuses on a life-changing experience for our entire planet – the first successful test of a nuclear weapon which occurred on July 16, 1945 near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Last night, from some seats in the outdoor Santa Fe Opera House, we could see the lights of Los Alamos about 40 miles beyond the stage.
How does one write an opera about a nuclear explosion? By focusing on the people, their relationships with each other, and their pseudo-worship of a pseudo-god, their “gadget,” the bomb.
Last night’s production, with a strong supporting performance by the local weather, was immense. Our evening began with a picnic near the opera house, and then we attended a pre-performance “conversation.” It was a chance to hear from librettist Sellars. He mentioned how officials characterized the atomic test as happening in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but sand for miles around. And then we met people whose families lived within 20 miles of the site in 1945. One man’s family homesteaded there in the 1800s, and Pueblo families have lived in the area for generations. These are some of the people that the government decided to ignore, to pretend they didn’t exist. In the opera General Leslie Groves refuses to evacuate these nobodies because it would alert the media that something was going on and might “compromise security.” That compromised security consisted mainly of fear of negative press coverage if the test fizzled.
After the conversation we moved from the lecture hall to the opera house itself for the performance. As we took our seats – safely covered by a huge, sweeping roof but with minimal walls – dark clouds rolled in and it started to drizzle. As a prelude we witnessed a Corn Dance performed by residents of four pueblos in the area. The participants included elders with drums and young people – some who looked no older than five – representing those “nobodies” that the government has done its best to forget.
The opera focuses on a few people – most notably Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and Pasqualita, their Tewa housekeeper. Other scientists and military men swirl around the central characters. A key story line is the angst of scientists on the Manhattan Project who began working on an atomic bomb as a defensive measure against Nazi Germany, which was also working on an A-bomb. But by the summer of 1945 Germany had surrendered, and the scientists struggled to justify their continuing work on what now they feared was an offensive weapon. Many of the scientists lived to regret their “success.” Oppenheimer became a passionate proponent of disarmament after the war.
As the countdown toward the test proceeds we see Oppenheimer and his wife struggling to deal with their new reality. As they cry to the heavens and drink vodka for solace Pasqualita comforts their infant child, singing an ancient song of her people. Emotional chaos builds and builds through the opera, but Pasqualita continues to sing her song to the end. As the music and action swelled, so did the actual weather. And then an actual storm blew in, with winds ruffling the costumes of the performers. It added thunder, lightning, and heavy rain to the experience.
It was a long evening – five hours from start of picnic to end of opera – but I was transfixed throughout. And now, nearly 24 hours later, I keep thinking about what we experienced.
We humans have made war a staple of our shared lives. In school we learn about winners and losers – the winners being US and the losers being THEM. But the truth is hardly that straightforward. My mother told me about living through World War II trying to raise a growing family in rural Minnesota. Life was hard. Money was scarce. Food and shelter were not guaranteed. She prayed and prayed for an end to the war, for an end to her family’s crushing poverty. Meanwhile in New Mexico, generations of “non-existent” people lived through the scarcity of war only to encounter a future dominated by thyroid disease and bone cancer. And the Oppenheimers of the world watched their work morph into visions of horror. And other citizens of the USA, more of US, suffered. I will never forget Pastor Jennifer Ikoma-Motzko telling her family’s story of being interred in Idaho, and then struggling even after the war to figure out what they had done wrong to deserve such punishment. After all, how could simply being of Japanese descent possibly negate their rights as US citizens?
War is not about US – the winners – and THEM – the losers. War is about power, and people who have it taking the opportunity to cause immeasurable suffering while exercising it. Wars do have winners. The rich get richer. Politicians hang onto their positions longer than they might otherwise. The powerful on all sides get to have their savage way with the world for a while.
Last night’s opera ended with a “successful” test of the gadget, the bomb, the angry new god on the scene. The characters looked on in wonder, and in horror waiting for that first explosion. The last voice heard was that of a Japanese woman, searching for her husband and children, pleading for water.
Oh that life would mimic art. That we would learn as a country, and as humans, that war only works for the wealthiest, the most powerful. That the rest of us would be better off if we were left to our everyday lives, our corn, our rain, our dancing, our music, our art. Left with our love for each other.
The following "Evening at the Santa Fe Opera" photos are by Jim Segaar