Monday, March 2, 2009

Doctor Atom

By David Luhrssen
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Along with Philip Glass, John Adams is the most popular composer to emerge from the minimalism of the 1960s and ‘70s. Adams has often turned to opera, where he mined recent events such as Nixon’s visit to China and Palestinian hijackers. In 2005 he debuted his depiction of the birth of the atomic age, Doctor Atom, at the San Francisco Opera.

The documentary Wonders Are Many (out now on DVD) intersperses rehearsals for the opera’s premiere with a backwards glance at its protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The secretive Manhattan Project and its team of brilliant nuclear scientists has been the subject of many biographies, feature films and documentaries. Adams and his colleague Peter Sellars intended to perform the magic of art on their subject, transforming familiar material into a new experience.

Whether or not they entirely succeeded, much of the music is sufficiently spine tingling, building through repetition from tension to the rising flash and intensity of a mushroom cloud. Adams and Sellars come across as an odd creative couple, the former erudite and professorial and the latter a flamboyant dramatist.

In one of Wonders’ interviews, physicist Freeman Dyson recalls Oppenheimer as an operatic figure, dramatic and mysterious and suitable for the stage. The father of the atom bomb, who later tried unsuccessfully to stem the arms race he helped foster, comes across in archival photographs as conflicted, aware of the moral weight he assumed and willing to proceed with his work in the face of a World War whose villains would not have flinched at using the weapon on civilians had they developed the bomb first.

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