Doctor AtomicComposer: John Adams, Librettist: Peter Sellars, Director: Penny Woolcock The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, NYhttp://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/news/dr_atomic/index.aspx
Jewish physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s decision to move forward with the production of the atom bomb in 1945 represented the culmination of a moral dilemma of tremendous magnitude. Were the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese civilians a fair price to pay to end World War II and to send a message to Russia that the United States was the world’s supreme power? And if one grants that ending, the war would justify killing civilians.
Germany had already been defeated and Japan was sure to be no match for the allied forces – even if they had left their atomic weapons back home. Can it really be called self-defense to use a sledgehammer to kill ants? Yet, the atomic bomb has arguably made life much safer for Jews both in this country and in Israel, especially as the world faces the prospect of a nuclear Iran. All of the sudden, “Thou shalt not kill” seems a bit blurrier and more dependent on context.
The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “Doctor Atomic” does not present a set of neatly wrapped answers to these difficult moral questions with a bow tied on the top. Not only is the morality in “Doctor Atomic” confusing, but the music is also downright chaotic. The “music” often sounds like an alarm; and the Met’s request that audience members shut off their cell phones was probably unnecessary; even if the ring tones were audible they probably would have contributed to the musical scores. In fact, much of the music conforms to a dissonant pattern of tritones called “devil in music” for obvious reasons, and the Playbill describes the noise as “ambient sounds from actual life that punctuate the music, such as running motors, crying babies, and snippets of pop music and spoken word.”
Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer (on left) in John Adam’s “Doctor Atomic” with other scientists. All photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Museum.
But listening to Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) try to sing his way through the violent storms in Los Alamos, New Mexico, that threatened his covert atomic test raises unique questions for a Jewish audience. “Doctor Atomic” is jam-packed with Jews, but at first glance it has little to say about Judaism. Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) was born to Jewish parents; his father Julius S., who was born in Germany, worked in textiles, and his mother Ella Friedman was a painter.
Additionally, many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, which was created by Jewish scientists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, were Jews who “had fled the Nazis, and all of them fervently believed they were racing against the clock to build the atomic bomb before Hitler got his hands on it and the game was over,” according to a note from the director in the Playbill.
The director’s note adds that Szilard wrote a letter to President Harry S. Truman arguing that bombing Japan was immoral and that Japanese scientists should be invited to observe an atomic test, which would surely lead them to surrender. This perhaps stemmed from Szilard’s painful experiences of violence and his identity as “a man who loved freedom and knew so much about oppression, having fled rising anti-Semitism in his native Hungary, that he lived in hotel rooms with a packed suitcase always on hand.”
Finley as Oppenheimer in front of the bomb.
Parts of Szilard’s letter appear in the opera in Act I, read by Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink) and the men’s chorus. Szilard’s letter is particularly meaningful when read in the voice of Teller, who was born in Budapest to Jewish parents and who fled Germany in 1933 with help from the Jewish Rescue Committee. “Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for acts which Germany committed during this war because they did not raise their voices in protest against those acts,” Szilard wrote. “Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable, even though these Germans could not have protested without running risks to life and liberty.
We scientists, working on ‘atomic power,’ are in a position to raise our voices without such risks, even though we might incur the displeasure of those who are at present in charge. The people of the United States are unaware of the choice we face. And this only increases our responsibility in this matter. We alone who have worked on ‘atomic power’ – we alone are in a position to declare our stand.”
The letter falls on deaf ears though, and the test goes forward. “I think it improper for a scientist to use his prestige as a platform for political pronouncements. The nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington,” Oppenheimer responds. “They have the information which we do not possess. Men like Marshall,” by which he means Col. James Marshall, “a man of great humanity and intellect − it is for them to decide, not us.”
But as General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) grows increasingly angry at the storm for thwarting the atomic test – and rambles like a madman much like King Lear in his own storm and rants against nature – Oppenheimer turns not to his Jewish heritage, but to a variety of sources, which include Hinduism and Christianity, according to the Metropolitan performance.
While the other scientists worry about whether their mandate really trumps the human right to life, Oppenheimer arrogantly quotes the Bhagavad-gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the test, though, Oppenheimer (Oppie in the libretto) offers a very revealing confession in the last line of the opera: “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.” It is unclear what Oppenheimer meant by “Lord,” but perhaps he was thinking about his Jewish heritage.
Even with hindsight, it is hard to unpack what Jewish law has to say about the project of building a bomb. The bomb could save Israel and perhaps prevent another Holocaust, but it also means that people now have the capacity to destroy the world. That’s a far cry from Tikkun Olam, and repairing and cultivating life. The bomb reminds me of the Holy Ark’s voyage through the land of the Philistines, beginning in 1 Samuel, Chapter 4. The Jews decide to bring the ark to battle, which initially frightens the Philistines, but after a pep talk of biblical proportions they manage to capture the holiest of vessels from the Tabernacle.
However, the Philistines quickly learn that not only have they plundered their enemies’ most powerful weapon (with G-d’s help of course), but a also a ticking time bomb, which knocks the statue of their idol Dagon flat on his face, beheading him and cutting off his hands − as well as striking the people with plagues and wiping out the city of Gath.
Final scene from “Doctor Atomic.”
Like the atomic bomb, the biblical ark did not differentiate between warriors and laypeople (presumably all the people living in the Philistine cities were hit with the plagues and destruction), and it was both a tremendous weapon and a serious liability. The Philistines quickly realized it was best to return the ark to the Jews.
Oppenheimer and the U.S. government decided to keep their weapon and all the responsibilities it implied, and today there are more countries that have nuclear weapons. John Adams’ insight in “Doctor Atomic” is to turn the tables and directly confront the audience with the question of whether the bomb is worth it. As he explains in the director’s note, Adams includes recorded voices of Japanese women asking for water (in the aftermath of the bomb), and the entire cast of singers looks out at the audience, which Adams hopes will realize is, itself, the bomb.
I am not sure this move works artistically, but from a political and ethical perspective, it is important to ponder the idea that we are the bomb. Jewish viewers will surely come up with answers to the questions of what Oppenheimer should have done and how the United States should use its nuclear weapons today, answers that are very different to gentile audience members. The opera only raises the questions, and this column is no place for providing political answers. But if you make it to the opera or track down a recording of the music, the ideas that Adams forces listeners to grapple with are very provocative indeed.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.