A lot is riding on Doctor Atomic this summer. In preparation for the opera about the detonation of an atomic bomb in Southern New Mexico in 1945 and the people who made it happen, Santa Fe has drilled down with countless lectures, seminars, citywide business initiatives and panel discussions to explore every aspect of New Mexico's relationship with technology and, in turn, this opera. Yup'ik choreographer Emily Johnson emphasized in a talk at the Lensic the power of community and conversation to heal old wounds; the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, members of which are featured onstage, have finally had a congressional hearing about reparations; charismatic librettist Peter Sellars seems to believe that poetry has the power to save the world.
However, as someone who believes that society is doomed, the planet is dying and humanity is hopeless, the idealism of those who seem to think Doctor Atomic is some sort of miraculous salve at first irritated, then exhausted, then angered me.
Of course, this production does not exist in a vacuum. In addition to the aforementioned citywide events, an anti-plutonium pit production activist approached me with fliers in the parking lot. This opera is not an escape from the outside world; it is not a safe place (sorry not sorry, Pence). This is an unflinching fling out into the universe.
There's been much reverential buzz about a ceremonial corn dance performed onstage by members of three nearby Pueblos before the show—but apparently not enough reverence or buzz to get people to sit down and shut up for it. I had to say, "Sir, please move, you're blocking my view" to no fewer than three men during the 10-minute dance. SFO would do well to require ushers to hold disrespectful patrons from noisily taking their seats during the sacred dance.
Much of the opera itself is not beautiful. (I heard a willowy patron sniff on her way out: "There was just no musicality.") But, as Sellars emphasized, "This is not an opera that is in any way comfortable. … If this subject matter is ever friendly, it's wrong."
Indeed, composer John Adams' cacophonous and disjointed score is set to sentences like "the 20 triangular faces of an icosahedron intertwined with the 20 pentagonal faces of the dodecahedron" (no really—those lines are sung), drawn largely from FBI surveillance material. The first scene, in which the massive chorus sings Einstein's theory of special relativity and the cadre of scientists and military personnel debate the science, morality and politics of the bomb, is difficult to get through. A woman a couple rows in front of me left 30 minutes in.
But do not doubt she was a complete idiot for doing so.
After the chaotic first scene (which contains precisely none of the poetry with which Sellars is so obsessed), the story moves into the Oppenheimers' bedroom. The opera shifts from discord to poise; Kitty, sung by veritable contortionist Julia Bullock (she doubles over, she rolls on the floor, she slumps and crosses her legs—all while staying in pitch) and Oppenheimer (a mercurial and charismatic Ryan McKinny, who not once dons a porkpie hat) trade beauty lip to lip. With sensuous croons of "kissing your mouth awake, opening the body's mouth, stopping the words" and "your hair contains an entire dream where eternal heat languidly quivers," we're drawn into their love and their agony in one of the most intense fully-clothed sex scenes ever seen in any entertainment, never mind on an opera stage.
And then we're whisked to the Trinity test site, where the score whips back into Philip Glass-esque urgency. As the Pueblo dancers return to the stage for an unrelenting corn dance, General Groves (Daniel Okulitch) berates meteorologist Frank Hubbard (Tim Mix) for equally unrelenting rain. Like last year, when lawyers became unexpected saviors during the first travel ban, here a weatherman rises to hero status as he fights to convince the powers that be that they simply should not detonate in such a storm. But Groves feels he has no choice.
All the while, the massive mirrored plutonium sphere hangs ominously above the stage—eerily reminiscent of HAL 9000, dancers and actors often address it, lights shine on it and reflect back into the audience, an omnipotent reminder of what's gathered us here. Also ever-present are four modern dancers choreographed hauntingly by Johnson. Whoever they are—ancestors, emotions, gods, matriarchy, Pacha Mama, furies, counternarrative, all of the above—the dancers, dressed in reds and oranges in contrast to the ensemble's cool blues, weave throughout the entire story, sometimes in furious movement, sometimes delicately measured.
The Sisyphean task of putting this opera into words could be enough to drive any reviewer batty; not to mention the very real concern of "spoiling the end." The end, people—oh, the end. An opera that makes me dig my nails into my own leg? Sign me up. But I can't tell you about it. You just need to see it.
Doctor Atomic is a way toward healing in the same way that lancing a boil is a way toward healing. It is not beautiful, comforting or peaceful. It is terrifying—even beyond its apocalyptic themes, we're talking actual jump-scares. It's heartbreaking, it's infuriating, and it's absolutely necessary.
Of course, those in any place of power will probably leave 30 minutes in. This opera is both a call for artists to take up arms and a call to warmongers to drop their weapons; but the irony is, even if some of us listen, it may still be too late.
Doctor Atomic: Five performances through Aug. 16. $107-$310. Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900, santafeopera.org