Growing up, Peter Sellars depended on both his high school and college physics teachers. They were "fantastic scientists," he notes, but "also were great artists." The connection between science and art, in other words, has been clear for a long time to Sellars, librettist and stage director for the Santa Fe Opera's production of Doctor Atomic.
Part of SFO's Tech and the West series, which included last summer's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Doctor Atomic has been accompanied by myriad public programming investigating the issues immanent in the region's nuclear weapons legacy, providing an interdisciplinary window into this complex story.
In response to a question on the reciprocity of the disciplines, Sellars says both science and art require imagination. "It's a myth that science is just tech," he notes. "Science is the act of imagination, the act of seeing what's not yet there, which is what an artist does with a blank piece of paper. There's a drawing that isn't there yet and then, at the end of the day, the piece of paper has a drawing on it, and that drawing is part of humanity and eternity, but it wasn't there this morning."
Similarly, a scientific revelation, "as soon as it's discovered … goes forward and backward in time; it's been waiting to be acknowledged, but it's always been there and that kind of vision, which is about a combination of study and meditation and a kind of freedom of imagination itself. All of these things are hovering in the practice of science and in the practice of the arts."
Doctor Atomic composer John Adams' work, Sellars points out, brims with technical rigor. "When he is creating a chord progression, when he's creating a harmonic convergence, it's done with a scientific level of acumen. And John's music is just unbelievably precise, and in terms of the sheer depth and complexity of it, an operatic score by John Adams with 500 pages of thousands of notes per page is probably one of the most dense and highly scientific products of any human endeavor and … it's done with incredible hands-on scientific determination."
Nonetheless, Sellars had humanistic concerns about operatic adaptation of the story of Manhattan Project history; mainly aestheticizing the considerable suffering engendered by the nuclear industry. In fact, when first approached 25 years ago about such an endeavor, Sellars' response was, "Absolutely not. That subject matter is off-limits."
Several decades later, when he and composer Adams agreed to the work and began what would be intensive multidisciplinary research, Sellars realized "the only way we could handle the material is to handle this very limited time period": the summer of 1945, and the days leading up to the atomic bomb detonation at Trinity. The decision to limit that scope and not include Hiroshima was deliberate. "The level of human suffering can never be matched even remotely in a work of art, and I would really be ashamed to pretend to represent that scale of hurt, of damage, of agony, on a stage."
The opera does not shy away, though, from seeking to represent—successfully, I felt—the suffering and complexity of this particular technology on this particular region of the country. It emphasizes Robert Oppenheimer's own grief and poetic cognition, and incorporates the people whose destinies were, in fact, inexorably changed by his actions.
"Oppenheimer is one of the most powerful figures in world history just because he is so vulnerable," Sellars says. "He is so exposed; his genius doesn't give him a Teflon coat."
But integrating downwinders and Native American corn dancers into the staging invokes more than narrative inclusivity. Sellars believes the opera provides a lens to consider the import of Indigenous technologies, such as ethnobotany, animal husbandry or the corn dances themselves—performed in Doctor Atomic—which he views (and now I'm paraphrasing) as a type of spiritual technology powered by moral energy.
"Indigenous technology is about stewardship of the planet and actually being able to make a very light footprint in this land," he says. "Our culture is based on not becoming but, rather: 'What can I get out of it now?' In Indigenous technology, it's: 'What can you get out of it in 50 years, and what can you get out of it in 450 years?' … You're understanding your actions in that continuum, and again we're into what could be, must be called science; these are types of knowledge that are used with extreme care and precision in sustaining life in a part of the world where it's dangerous to live. If you don't know what you're doing, you'll starve and you'll die of thirst. We're so impressed with Western technology and it's destroyed a lot of the planet, it's destroyed a lot of communities. … It's not so impressive."
Four performances through Aug. 16. $107-$310.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive,