(J. Robert Oppenheimer)
How does contemporary art music respond to the moral problems of the age?
John Adams wrote the opera Doctor Atomic, about the Manhattan Project — the top-secret World War II initiative to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis could — in 2005. The libretto is by Peter Sellars, whom you will remember as the stage director of the production of Don Giovanni that we studied earlier in the semester. Sellars put together his libretto from historical texts, including letters and diaries.
The principal character in the opera is the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer is reported to have said, at the first test of the prototype bomb — quoting the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It is difficult to imagine how it must have felt to the brilliant team of scientists to witness the test explosion, knowing as they did that their invention would rupture the innocence of mankind for all time to come.
In the finale of Act I, Oppenheimer is alone with the prototype bomb (nicknamed “The Gadget”). He sings an aria whose text Sellars took from one of the Holy Sonnets of the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poet John Donne:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; For you
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe
Shine, and seek to mend;
Batter my heart, three person’d God;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Why do you think Sellars and Adams gave the character of Oppenheimer these words to sing?