Friday, October 31, 2008
Scary Because They're Real
It was a dark and stormy night when a team of scientists unleashed a weapon of unparalleled power, something that could eat away at human tissue and lay waste to entire cities.
That sounds like the stuff of science fiction and horror stories, but it's actually a description of the first atomic bomb explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945 in a New Mexico desert area known as Jornado del Muerto. This event is the subject of Doctor Atomic, the John Adams opera at the Metropolitan Opera into early November. (The opera can also be seen in movie theaters on November 8.)
The work is well-timed for the Halloween season, as it offers an opportunity to contemplate some of the great horrors of recent (and current) times: The enormity of World War II, the seeming inevitability of the creation and use of the atomic bomb in that war, and the dread that humanity has not moved beyond such nightmarish scenarios.
The opera's lyrics come from a variety of sources including the Bhagavad Gita, a work close to the heart of Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb" and the central character of the opera.
As I recall, the Gita is an interlude in the Mahabharata, a tale of a great war, in which the warrior (and great archer) Arjuna wrestles with profound doubts as he readies himself for the climactic battle.
Doctor Atomic is like a Gita for the nuclear age, in which the last stage of development of the bomb comes across as a kind of self-questioning interlude before the decisions that finally decided the war on the Pacific front. Early in the opera, scientists express concern about how the bomb will be used—perhaps, it is suggested, a mere demonstration of its powers on testing grounds would be enough to stop Japan. Such alternate choices loom over the remainder of the work as the test of the bomb comes closer and closer.
As realized in this production, this chilling work is worthwhile though something of a mixed bag. I didn't admire everything about it, but I found it touching as well as thought-provoking. You should be able to get excellent $20/30 tickets by showing up at the box office by 11am for the November 5 and November 13 performances—but feel free to do your own research to confirm this as well as the feasibility of going with standing room tickets.
EXTRA For a more "classic" Halloween experience, considering seeing Roman Polanski's masterful Rosemary's Baby, based on the novel by Ira Levin. As I've mentioned previously, Levin had a knack for seizing on anxieties experienced by many women of his day; this 1968 film is a catalogue of troubling scenarios related to pregnancy (not to mention marriage to actors). As the Motion Picture Herald put it, "Pregnant women should see it at their own risk." Just note the Halloween night travel advisory to get to the theater from the west (the 1 stop) to avoid the parade and another type of scary experience.