Thursday, July 16, 2009

" . . . to break, blow, burn . . . "

Today is the birthday of J. Robert Oppenheimer's "Gadget," which figures so prominently in the staging of the character's aria in the video linked just below. On July 16, 1945, the Gadget -- the first atomic bomb -- was exploded in the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, at the site Oppenheimer had christened "Trinity."

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I had the opportunity at the last minute to attend the final dress rehearsal of John Adams's Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitcan Opera last fall, just before leaving New York for good. It was perhaps the best possible way to leave my beloved city, and it was one of the most moving and astonishing things I've ever seen in the theater, let alone in the opera. From the moment the curtain rises on a hive of cubicles, covered with a scrim on which the real-life security clearance photos of the Manhattan Project scientists are projected, the audience is subject to the heart-changing spectacle offered by a great work of art.

A great work of art, musical or otherwise, has the intention and the result of transforming the witness's relationship to both the history of his own humanity and the humanity he shares with all members of his race. The anguish on baritone Gerald Finley's face as he sings Oppenheimer's Act I aria (linked below), a brilliant setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV (the text of which Oppenheimer had copied into his own diary), invites all who witness to acknowledge the fall from Eden which we share with our first parents and with one another, the curse that keeps us from living in peace, and the hope of redemption for the human race.

I would like to think that J. Robert Oppenheimer, not only a brilliant physicist but also a learned man and a spiriual seeker, found redemption in the end.

To view the trailer from the Met's production of Doctor Atomic, which includes shots of the cubicle scrim, go here.


Mark in Spokane said...

Ah, the bomb. Well, better we got it than the Germans or the Japanese or the Russians before us. While all death in war is regrettable -- and the total war of World War II was particularly brutal -- once the war was underway this particular genie was going to be released from the bottle.

Pentimento said...

That's not in dispute, Mark.

In this post, I really meant to address the way that a work of art can transform not only our relationship to humanity, but also to the shared course of human history.

Brenda from Flatbush said...

This looks extremely cool. I'd heard of this opera but would never have given it a second look (blind prejudice against modern operas); thanks for turning my attention to it. Love the sonnet.

Pentimento said...

Check out the link in this post and in the post just previous to this one, Brenda. Doctor Atomic was the best thing I've ever seen at the Met over years of operagoing -- though a couple of Wagner ptoductions were almost as good in their own way.